A gynaecologist and obstetrician practicing at Netcare Park Lane Hospital in Johannesburg, Dr Thandi Mtsi, says cervical cancer is not something that happens "to other women only" and 80% will be exposed to the human papilloma virus in their lifetime.
It is estimated that 3 700 South African women will lose their lives this year because of cervical cancer...one of few cancers for which there is a known cause.
Cervical cancer is a life-threatening disease that will cause the death of more than 270 000 women throughout the world each year - this means worldwide a woman dies every two minutes as a result of cervical cancer.
However, cervical cancer may be prevented if correct and timeous action is taken.
Never too late
More than 50 countries have already incorporated vaccinations against the human papilloma virus as part of their national vaccination programmes and from February 2014 South Africa will follow suit.
Dr Mtsi says more South African women die of cervical cancer than any other type of cancer every year, but with the aid of regular screenings like an annual Pap smear and timeous vaccination against HPV, cervical cancer is becoming a preventable disease.
The vaccination is 100% effective against persistent infection.
It is best to be vaccinated before becoming sexually active and it is recommended that girls as young as 11 and 12 get vaccinated, but, says the report, it’s never too late to get the injection, even if a woman has come into contact with some of the HPV strains.
Dr Mtsi said: “The gold standard these days is the HPV test which checks for the virus that can cause these cell changes on the cervix.
"It may be used to screen for cervical cancer together with the Pap test and may also be used to provide more information when the results of a Pap smear are unclear. The HPV test is unfortunately not yet widely available and is also costly.
“People tend to shy away from discussing HPV because it is a sexually transmitted disease."
While most HPV infections can be successfully treated, people’s immune systems weaken as they get older and then HPV infection could become more dangerous and powerful.
Even for women with only one sexual partner, the cumulative risk of acquiring a cervical HPV infection three years after their first sexual encounter stands at a staggering 46%.
"People need to understand that HPV causes cervical cancer and there is no shame to discuss it openly.
"If people can talk about HIV/Aids, they should be able to talk about cervical cancer and the HPV that causes it,” said Dr Mtsi.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a double-stranded DNA virus.
Approximately 100 types of HPV have been identified to date and, of these, nearly 15 virus types are considered to cause cervical cancer.
The high-risk virus types 16, 18, 45 and 31 are responsible for almost 80% of cervical cancers globally.
“If you can protect yourself from getting an HPV infection, your chances of developing cervical cancer is miniscule,” says Dr Mtsi.
How is the HPV transmitted?
* The virus is transmitted through sexual contact and in rare cases from a mother to her newborn baby, says Dr Mtsi.
* Because the virus is not carried by bodily fluids, but is transferred by contact, having protective sex will not give 100% protection against becoming infected.
* Penetration does not have to take place before the HPV is transmitted – rubbing against your partner can be enough to contract the virus.
What is the link between the HPV and cervical cancer?
> The high-risk HPV virus types are responsible for virtually all cervical cancer, which is cancer of the cervix - the small canal between the womb and the vagina.
> The more a woman comes into contact with the HPV, the greater her chances are of developing cervical cancer.
Dr Mtsi said: "Your cervical cells multiply to heal themselves when your cervix is scarred from frequent infection, but abnormal cells can multiply out of control as a result of the HPV infection and can cause pre-cancerous cervical lesions, which ultimately cause cervical cancer.”
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Dr Mtsi said there were no early symptoms for cervical cancer.
“The first symptoms only appear when the disease progresses. Women should, however, look out for pain during sex; any change in menstrual periods; an increased vaginal discharge and any abnormal vaginal bleeding,” she advises.
Press release by Netcare
(Picture: vaccine from Shutterstock)