January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, designed to remind women about the critical role of regular screening in detecting cervical cancer and saving lives.

Regular pelvic exams, which include the Pap test, can detect pre-cancerous conditions as well as find cervical cancer. Early detection and treatment can prevent the development of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is nearly 100 percent preventable with regular screening. Deaths related to cervical cancer have declined dramatically as more women have regular pelvic exams.

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection. Unprotected sex with multiple partners increases a woman’s chance of getting cervical cancer.

Accordingly, women and men are encouraged to use latex condoms every time they have sex, and to limit their number of sex partners to help reduce risk of HPV exposure. A woman should have a Pap test by age 21 (or within one year of becoming sexually active), and follow regular screening guidelines as directed by her physician.

The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, prevents about 70 percent of cervical cancers and most (90 percent) genital warts. It is approved for females ages 9 to 26 and is recommended before beginning sexual activity.

For those without health insurance, the state Family PACT program pays for pelvic exams for women with lower incomes. The state Cancer Detection Programs: Every Woman Counts, administered locally by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, pays for free Pap tests with clinical exams and mammograms to underserved women. For more information, call 800.511.2300.