January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, an ideal time to call attention to one of the most preventable cancers.

The good news is that cervical cancer rates have declined significantly because of widespread use of the Pap screening test. Even better, cervical cancer can now be prevented by a vaccine that targets HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancer cases.

The bad news is that, despite these screening and prevention tools, about 13,000 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year. Approximately 4,000 will die.

Furthermore, disparities by race continue:

  • Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native women have the highest rates of cervical cancer in the U.S.
  • Black women have the highest rates of death from cervical cancer.
  • White women fare better than those who are black or Hispanic. Women who are Hispanic or Latina are 30% more likely to die of cervical cancer than white women. The five-year relative survival rate for cervical cancer is 69% for white women and 56% for black women.

What’s behind these disparities?

The answer is complex, but studies point to a connection between low screening rates and socioeconomic factors, including lower education and income levels and lack of access to care. Location also plays a role.

More than half of all women diagnosed with cervical cancer either have never been screened or have not been screened as often as recommended.

  • Screening rates are 78.2% for women ages 21-44 who have not completed high school, compared with 88.2% for college graduates.
  • Screening rates are 79.2% for women ages 21-44 with incomes of less than $25,000, compared with 90.3% for those with incomes of $75,000 or higher.
  • Women who live in the South or Rust Belt states have higher incidence and mortality rates than those in New England and Western states.

However, data on HPV immunization rates tell a different story. Minority and low-income females are more likely to be immunized against HPV. Females ages 13-16 in households with incomes below the poverty level are more likely to receive the vaccine (59.4%) than those above the poverty level (52.2%). In addition, white females in the same age group are least likely to receive the HPV vaccine. Immunization rates are 50.7% for white females, 57.2% for Hispanic females, and 58.4% for black females.

What you can do: Get screened and, if you’re eligible, get the HPV vaccine.

Cervical cancer screening is the most effective way to detect cervical cancer early, when it can be treated and, often, cured. That’s why it’s important to follow the screening guidelines, regardless of your race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status—and to talk with your health care provider to help determine your risk factors for cervical cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends the following screenings:

  • For women ages 21-29—Pap test screening for cervical cancer every three years.
  • For women ages 30 to 65—any one of the following types of screenings is acceptable: Pap test screening every three years, high-risk HPV (hrHPV) testing every five years, or Pap test screening plus hrHPV testing (cotesting) every five years.

Women who have higher risks for cervical cancer, such as those with HIV, a history of pre-cancerous cervical lesions, or a suppressed immune response, should consult with their health care provider about whether they should be screened more frequently or past the age of 65.

Younger people can prevent cervical and other HPV-related cancers by getting the HPV vaccine. Age matters because the vaccine provides the most benefit to people who have not yet been exposed to HPV. The vaccine does not treat existing HPV infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following:

  • Two doses of the HPV vaccine for all adolescents at age 11 or 12.
  • Three doses for those who start the vaccine later (between ages 15 and 26) and for those ages 9 through 26 who have weaker immune systems.

Vaccination rates are on the rise but remain below national goals. Even so, already the vaccine is credited with significant reductions in HPV infection. If you, a family member, or other loved one are in the targeted age group (11-26 years), talk with your health care provider and arrange to get the vaccine.