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Condoms Protect Against Cervical Cancer

They reduce risk posed by human papilloma virus, the cause of the disease, study finds

WEDNESDAY, June 21, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Using condoms consistently and properly significantly reduces the risk of infection by the virus that causes cervical cancer among newly sexually active women.

"The message is that women can significantly reduce their risk of HPV infection by using condoms consistently with their male partners but it's not 100 percent effective," said Rachel Winer, lead author of a study appearing in the June 22 New England Journal of Medicine and a research scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle. "Other preventive measures, including regular screenings, are still very important."

"People try to cast aspersions on the efficacy of condoms," added Dr. Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "They try to use it as a platform that abstinence is only way to prevent viral transmission, and, yes, abstinence is only way to prevent it 100 percent. But condoms are effective in significantly reducing viral transmission, especially in regard to HPV."

HPV stands for human papilloma virus, which is responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancers. An estimated 20 million women and men in the United States are infected with HPV but, for most, the virus shows no symptoms and goes away on its own.

Cervical cancer is the second most common malignant disease in women globally, causing an estimated 290,000 deaths worldwide each year. In the United States, some 10,400 new cases will be diagnosed this year, and 3,700 women will die from the disease.

A milestone in the fight against the disease came June 8, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine that protects against HPV. The vaccine is called Gardasil and is made by Merck and Co.

Although research has shown that condoms protect against transmission of HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and herpes, data on the role of condoms against other sexually transmitted infections has been limited. In fact, several studies showed that condom use did not reduce the risk of HPV infection in men.

"It seems intuitive but it's not something that they were able to prove with studies previously," Wu said.

For the new study, researchers followed 82 female university students who reported their first intercourse with a male partner during the study period or within two weeks before enrollment. The researchers took cervical and vulvovaginal samples for HPV DNA testing and Pap smears every four months. The women used electronic diaries to record information about their sexual activities.

The result: "The women who used condoms 100 percent of the time were 70 percent less likely to get HPV infected," Winer said.

Even women whose partners used condoms more than half the time had a 50 percent risk reduction in HPV infection, compared with those who used condoms less than 5 percent of the time.

"Use condoms and use them properly," Wu said. "It's the best form of protection against STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]."

More information

For more on HPV, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Rachel L. Winer Ph.D., MPH, research scientist, department of epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle; Jennifer Wu, M.D., obstetrician/gynecologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; June 22, 2006, New England Journal of Medicine
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