Puff’s death should ring alarm bells

2013-07-07 14:00

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In life, Puff Johnson charmed R&B fans with hits like Over & Over.

After her death two weeks ago, local gynaecologists say Johnson’s battle with cervical cancer should serve as a reminder to women of all ages to be regularly screened for the disease.

Johnson (40) was diagnosed four years ago and moved briefly to South Africa soon afterwards – the diagnosis and her move were unrelated.

She died on June 24, back home in the US.

She is one of about 275 000 women who will die of cervical cancer around the world this year, 3 500 of them here in South Africa.

Tragically, cervical cancer is a preventable disease if it’s detected early. But according to media reports at the time, Johnson was already in stage 4, considered the final stage of the disease, when she was diagnosed.

Gynaecologist Dr Priya Moodley said a “simple pap smear test” was all that was needed to detect the disease.

Pathologists use this smear from the lining of the cervix to see if there are any abnormal changes to cells.

If this is the case, treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

But prevention is better than cure. Local gynaecologist Dr Thandi Mtsi says vaccinating young girls who are not sexually active against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer, is ideal.

There are two HPV vaccines currently available in South Africa – but they’re costly, at between R595 and R896 per shot. To be fully protected, girls must have three injections.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced recently that the HPV vaccine will be rolled out free for nine-year-old girls from poorer schools from February next year.

The virus is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, body fluids and sexual intercourse. In most cases, HPV goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems. But if it persists, it’s a silent killer.

Moodley said women “can live with the infection for 10 to 15 years without knowing and by the time it is detected, it is too late”. By the time the cancer is in its fourth stage, it’s difficult to treat.

Moodley said survival rates in the fourth stage – which is when Johnson was diagnosed – are as low as 20%.

“This was why health professionals advocate for prevention,” she said.

Mtsi echoed her sentiments, saying “the precancer conditions and early stages can be cured”.

“During this period, the patient comes for observation. The patient needs to come for six monthly pap smears to check if there’s a progression of the disease,” she explained.

» See citypress.co.za/multimedia for a graphic explaining the stages of cervical cancer – and how to treat it

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