Girls who begin having sexual intercourse at a younger age may have a significantly higher risk for developing cervical cancer, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Cancer. As the BBC reports, in a study of some 20,000 women, investigators from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that those who began having intercourse younger were roughly twice as likely to develop cervical cancer during their lifetimes. The new findings may help to explain the discrepancy in cervical cancer rates between wealthy and poor women, researchers say, as their study revealed that women from poor backgrounds tended to have first intercourse an average of four years earlier than those from more affluent backgrounds.
Health researchers have long noted a discrepancy in cervical cancer rates between the wealthy and poor, a gap that has been attributed to different levels of access to care and screening. (Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that some poor women were being turned away from free cancer screening clinics, as these programs have had to change their eligibility standards to cope with the increased demand driven by the economic crisis.) Yet, this latest study finds that, while screening does impact the level of cervical cancer risk, even when rates of human papillomavirus (HPV)—the virus that can lead to cervical cancer—infection were comparable, earlier intercourse was still strongly associated with roughly double the incidence of cancer among poorer women, who began intercourse an average of four years younger. Additionally, the researchers said that this difference was not attributable to other factors, such as total number of sexual partners or smoking.
Researchers say that earlier exposure to HPV likely increases the risk for cervical cancer as it increases the overall time frame that the virus has to influence the development of abnormal cancerous cells. As Dr. Silvia Franceschi, the study’s lead author, told the BBC:
“…[P]oorer women had become sexually active on average four years earlier… So they may have also been infected with HPV earlier, giving the virus more time to produce the long sequence of events that are needed for cancer development.”
British cancer researchers say that these findings offer further evidence for the need to begin HPV vaccination in young girls before first sexual intercourse, and to improve access to the HPV vaccine for girls from poor communities.