SUNDAY, April 1 (HealthDay News) — Human papillomavirus
infection tends to lasts longer in college-aged black women than whites,
possibly setting them up for a higher risk of cervical cancer, according
to a new study.
The researchers also found that black women are 70 percent more likely
to have an abnormal Pap test — the screening for cervical cancer — than
their white counterparts. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is a
sexually transmitted infection, can cause genital warts and is responsible
for many cases of cervical cancer.
“African American women are more likely to have persistent high-risk
HPV infection,” said study author Kim Creek, vice-chair and professor of
pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences at South Carolina College of
Pharmacy, in Charleston.
Most HPV infections are transient. “If you are infected, your body
recognizes it as a viral infection and usually clears the virus within one
or two years,” he said. “It is those women who have difficulty clearing it
that are at higher risk of cervical disease and cervical cancer.”
Exactly why black women have more difficulty clearing the virus is not
known. “We think that it likely has something to do with the immune
system,” he said.
Lifestyle factors and genetic differences may also play a role. “We
will try to understand why this occurs because if we could understand the
reason for the difference, it would be easier to make public health
recommendations about what to do about it,” Creek added.
For the study, researchers assessed HPV infection and persistence in
college-age women enrolled at the University of South Carolina. The study
began in 2004, and the women were followed throughout their college years.
HPV status was evaluated every six months in Pap test samples from 326
white women and 113 black women.
The rate of new high-risk HPV infection was similar between the two
groups of women, the researchers found, but at any visit, black women were
1.5 times more likely to test positive for high-risk HPV infection. Also,
56 percent of black women were still infected two years after they were
first diagnosed, compared with 24 percent of white women.
The findings are slated for presentation Sunday at the annual meeting
of the American Association for Cancer Research, in Chicago.
Creek said that black women are 40 percent more likely to develop
cervical cancer and two times more likely to die from the disease than
European or American white women. This discrepancy is often attributed to
lack of access to medical care, but the authors said their findings
suggest a biological basis lies behind the varying rates.
Regular screening with the Pap test is the best way to prevent cervical
cancer, Creek said. A sample of cells is scraped from a woman’s cervix and
examined under a microscope. If any abnormal or precancerous cells are
detected, measures can be taken to prevent them from developing into
HPV vaccinations offer protection from the four types of HPV that cause
most cervical cancers. These shots are currently recommended for 11- and
12-year-old girls and for females aged 13 to 26 who did not get any or all
of the HPV shots when they were younger. The vaccines can be given to
girls beginning at 9 years of age.
“African American women may benefit even more from the HPV shots,”
Dr. Diana Contreras, director of gynecologic oncology at Long Island
Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said it is way too early to
draw any conclusions about screening and treatment of HPV in black women
from this study.
“We are beginning to understand that HPV may behave differently in
different ethnic groups,” she said. “This study is very provocative, but
the jury is still out on screening and treatment, and we have to be
careful about drawing too many conclusions.”
Data and conclusions of research presented at medical meetings should
be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical
Learn more about HPV
infection at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.