While the race is on for a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s a vaccine for the leading cause of female cancer deaths in less developed countries...
It’s World Immunisation Week (24 – 30 April) and while scientists around the world work tirelessly on a COVID-19 vaccine, there is a vaccine that many believe could eradicate cervical cancer.
Many cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection. Fortunately, a global vaccine programme being rolled out in more than 130 countries, including South Africa, is already indicating a decline in infections of the HPV-16 and HPV-18 strains – the strains that are the main culprits linked to cervical cancer.
What is HPV, how does it cause cervical cancer and what do you need to know about the HPV vaccine?
Dr David Eedes, clinical oncology advisor of Icon Oncology, the biggest network of private oncologists in the country, explains...
What is HPV and how is it contracted?
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is widespread and a high percentage of South Africans who are sexually active will become infected with HPV during their lifetime.
HPV infection can often go undetected as it generally has no significant effects on a person’s health. In some cases, HPV can cause genital warts which are visible. HPV is contracted through skin-on-skin contact as well as sexual activity.
How is HPV linked to cervical cancer?
Certain strains such as HPV-16 and HPV-18 can cause the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix which may then lead to cancer development.
Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection. This infective cause means that it is one of the few preventable cancers, if one can prevent the HPV infection or detect the early signs before a cancer is formed.
How can you be tested for HPV?
Regular screening by means of a PAP test and other examinations can detect the HPV infection and early cell changes of the cervix. This can then be treated, often fairly simply.
Is it possible to prevent contracting HPV? If so, how?
HPV is contracted through sexual contact so using condoms during sex will help lower the risk. Vaccination of all young girls prior to them becoming sexually active is recommended.
For sexually active women, regular PAP tests are recommended so that a health care practitioner will be able to pick up whether you have a strain of HPV that will need to be monitored.
What is the optimum age to be vaccinated against HPV?
The vaccination is safe and most effective when given from the age of nine years and older or before girls become sexually active. Cervarix® is the vaccination that will be administered in two doses for optimal cover.
Cervical cancer, even without HPV vaccination, is a preventable cancer. The vaccination prevents the cause of the disease, but the disease is still preventable by early detection on Pap smears even in women who are not vaccinated.
Why is it important for young males to be vaccinated too?
There is a benefit for young males to be vaccinated pre-sexual activity to prevent them from acquiring HPV and passing it on to sexual partners. HPV is also associated with penile cancer in men and anal cancer in both men and women.
Can the vaccination be administered if the patient is already sexually active?
The vaccine can be used in any young person but currently the vaccination programme in South Africa is targeting pre-sexual females as this is where the biggest benefit will be seen.
Source: Icon Oncology and www.who.int/cancer/resources/keyfacts/en/
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