The fear of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer kills 10 women every day in South Africa. Despite this, South African women seem to avoid life-saving cervical cancer screening check-ups.

In the corporate world, 83% of women have neglected their Pap smear or other cervical cancer screening for over 12 months. According to the research, 20% of women in South African companies are living with the high-risk strains of HPV (human papillomavirus), which are the cause of 99% of cervical cancers, but have no visible symptoms.

Is a Pap smear enough?

The primary screening for cervical cancer has been, until recently, the Pap smear. It was developed in the 1940s and has been the gold standard screening test despite its low 54% sensitivity rate. This means that it misses 46% of cervical cancers.  Due to advances in technology, this procedure is now being challenged by a far more sensitive molecular test.

Dr Chris Maske, Head of the Molecular Pathology Laboratory at Lancet Laboratories, has this to say, “With the introduction of HPV DNA testing, there is absolutely no need for any woman in this day and age to develop cervical cancer, let alone die from the disease. It has the highest death rate amongst women in South Africa.”

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HPV testing may be more effective

“We always relied on the Pap smear as a screening test, but now large studies have shown that HPV testing is a much better test for detecting women who are at risk for cervical cancer,” says Dr Allison Glass, Clinical Virologist at Lancet Laboratories.

HPV causes 99% of cervical cancers and is spread through bodily fluids, mucous membranes and infected genital skin. More than 100 strains of HPV exist, of which 14 are considered ‘high risk’ or cancer-causing. Of this group, HPV 16 and HPV 18 cause 75% of cervical cancers.

While the Pap smear has saved millions of lives, it is simply not effective enough anymore. Medical experts across the globe and now in South Africa agree that HPV screening should be done before the Pap smear, as it is far more sensitive, accurate and sophisticated.

A home HPV screening option

A young Johannesburg executive who can vouch for this is 35-year-old Shireen Omar. “For the past 10 years I have been for my annual Pap smear, without fail. This year I just could not find the time. A good friend of mine mentioned a home-screening HPV test called UDoTest that could be bought from Dis-Chem or online. I decided to give it a try.”

“I followed the instructions and visited their website (www.udotest.com); it was all very clear and simple to do. Less than 10 days after I completed the test, I received feedback from the UDoTest doctors about my test showing a high risk HPV abnormality.”

“Naturally, I was terribly worried, but UDoTest helped me with counselling and referred me to a specialist. The gynaecologist I was referred to, decided to give me a Pap smear for confirmation. A week later, I received a sms to say that my Pap smear was negative and to come back to him in two years’ time! The Pap smear hadn’t picked up the HPV but the UDoTest did!”

Shireen returned to the gynaecologist for a second opinion. “Thankfully, he booked me in for a colposcopy because of the positive UDoHPVTest result.” A colposcopy is an examination of the cervix using a microscope to detect abnormalities in the cells. Abnormal cells were detected and Shireen then had a biopsy which revealed the presence of precancerous cells. “If I had believed the result of the Pap smear, I would have been in serious trouble,” says a relieved Shireen.

The question we now have to ask is, will the HPV test become the primary screening option for cervical cancer instead of the Pap smear? “Yes, definitely,” says Allison Martin, the founder of UDoTest. “It’s already happening overseas. Women need to do the more accurate cervical cancer test first.”

“The UDoHPVTest eliminates the need for the speculum, examination rooms and trained personnel,” says Martin. “We are screening and educating women in both rural and urban areas, as well as internationally. I share Dr Maske’s sentiment that no woman should develop cervical cancer in this day and age, let alone die from it.”

Sources: Dr Chris Maske, Dr Allison Glass, The John Hopkins Manual of Gynaecology & Obstetrics and Wikipedia

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.