Cervical dysplasia is characterized by abnormal (dysplastic) cells in the cervix. Extending into the vagina, the cervix is the lowest part of the uterus. Although cervical dysplasia does not produce symptoms itself, it is potentially dangerous because it can progress to cervical cancer, the second-most common type of cancer in women, especially among younger women (Nicol 2005; Marshall 2003; Rock 2000).
Since the introduction of the Pap smear in 1941, the death rate from cervical cancer has dropped significantly because of early detection of cervical dysplasia. In developing countries, where Pap smears are not as common as in industrialized countries, cervical dysplasia is reported to be the leading cause of cancer in women (Potischman 1996). Worldwide, cervical cancer accounts for 11.6 percent of cancers in women (Giuliano 1998; Rock 2000).
In more than 99 percent of cases, cervical cancer and cervical dysplasia are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes genital warts (Yeo 2000). HPV is very common: the lifetime risk of a woman contracting genital HPV is estimated to be 80 percent (Bekkers 2004). It is transmitted through sexual intercourse. The virus may be present without symptoms, making it possible for carriers to transmit it unknowingly.
The vast majority of women with HPV will not develop cervical dysplasia or cancer (Marshall 2003; Giuliano 1998). There are many variations of the virus, and some forms carry a higher risk for the development of cancer than others, especially HPV16 and HPV18 (Liu 1993). HPV is often difficult to detect because it rarely causes symptoms. Only about 1 percent of women with HPV have visible genital warts (Wright 2004), which adds to the importance of regular Pap smears.
The goal of cervical dysplasia treatment is reducing the risk of its progression to cervical cancer. This risk reduction may be accomplished through dietary modification, supplementation, and possibly by chemoprevention through the use of medical or chemical modifiers (Rock 2000; Pereira 2004; Maissi 2004). Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. Because of lifestyle changes, the prevalence of Pap smears, and exciting research into HPV vaccines, cervical cancer rates are expected to continue dropping in the industrialized world.