Intrauterine devices (IUDs) have long been heralded as one of the safest and most effective forms of birth control. But it turns out they also boast another major benefit: cervical cancer prevention.
According to a new study by the University of Southern California, the presence of the device spurs an immune response in the body that kills off human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been found to cause almost all instances of the disease.
“The data say the presence of the IUD in the uterus stimulates an immune response, and that immune response very, very substantially destroys sperm and keeps sperm from reaching the egg,” lead researcher Victoria Cortessis explained.
“It stands to reason the IUD might influence another immune phenomenon.”
Cortessis, who is an associate professor of clinical preventative medicine, said these results could potentially be lifesaving for those who are too old to benefit from the HPV vaccine.
“The vaccines don’t work unless the woman is vaccinated before she’s ever exposed to the virus,” she said.
“That’s why we want 11 and 12-year-olds to be vaccinated, so they have time to be fully vaccinated and have a robust immune response before first exposure.”
These days, HPV is so prevalent that many contract the virus as soon as they become sexually active.
“Women in their 20s and 30s and 40s who haven’t been vaccinated are not going to be protected,” Cortessis said. “That means for decades to come this epidemic of cervical cancer is with us."
However, while the results are positive, more research is needed before IUDs can officially be recommended as protection against cervical cancer.
“We need to figure out what’s going on mechanistically and do some fine tuning and see what kind of use could prevent cervical cancer and integrate that with contraceptive counseling," Cortessis added.