The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a root cause of cervical cancer in women — more than 100 strains of the virus exist, and 30 of them are associated with below-the-belt cancer.
Currently, more women globally and in South Africa die of cervical cancer than pregnancy-related complications. Every year, more than 7 700 women in the country are diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Because of the link between cervical cancer and HPV, the South African Health Ministry has begun a rollout of HPV vaccinations for young girls between the ages of 9 and 13.
What is HPV?
HPV, also known as warts and genital warts, is a particular virus that affects epithelial surfaces, or a layer of cells. The virus usually causes warts to occur on the soles of the feet, skin of the palms and the genitals.
A very common affliction, HPV affects between 10% — 20% of women and is particularly common among sexually active people. Stress and immune system problems can also be a contributing factor to the development of warts.
Symptoms of HPV can present in a number of ways, including:
- the appearance of wart-like lesions on the palms, or soles or genitalia
- increased dampness or moisture in the area of the growths
- if you have genital warts you may experience itching of the penis, scrotum, anal or vulvar areas
- women may notice abnormal vaginal bleeding (not associated with a menstrual period) after sexual intercourse
However, not all patients with the virus will have symptoms or evidence of warts, and can unknowingly pass it on to their partners.
There are a number of treatment options available for HPV, including cryotherapy, cautery, chemical treatments and, if necessary, surgical removal.
What is the link to cervical cancer?
HPV is closely-linked with cervical cancer and is found in over 95% of patients with this particular malignancy.
Cervical cancer is the most frequently occuring cancer in South African women aged 15 — 44. High risk HPV persistence is necessary for the progression to cervical cancer, making South African women particularly as risk due to high level of HPV prevalence.
This is compounded in South Africa with the HIV epidemic. HIV-infected women are more likely to be infected with HPV, often multiple types, and are at an increased risk of viral persistence and progression to cervical cancer.
Why does getting vaccinated help?
One of the most well-known ways of getting tested for cervical cancer is using a pap smear, which can be inaccessible and invasive to many women. This also does not account for the fact that men also contract HPV.
There are long-term benefits to the rollout of an HPV vaccination, not least of which will be the reduction of the prevalence of HPV — since the rollout of its vaccination programme in 2007, Australia has seen a massive drop of cases of genital warts in both men and women.
Though there are many strains of HPV, the two thought most likely to cause cervical cancer are HPV 16 and 19 are targeted by two of the available HPV vaccines — Gardasil and Cervarix.
Additionally, Cervarix offers protection against three other cancer-related strains of HPV.
With these matters in place, strides can be made in the field of cervical cancer prevention, which stands to benefit at-risk women across the country.
Links / References:
Health Systems Trust – Cervical cancer – is vaccination the way to go? (May 2008). Retrieved from http://www.hst.org.za/publications/cervical-cancer-vaccination-way-go
National Cancer Institute – Cervical Cancer—Patient Version. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical
World Health Organization – Statement on the continued safety of HPV vaccination. (March 12, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/committee/topics/hpv/GACVS_Statement_HPV_12_Mar_2014.pdf
Public Health Association of South Africa – Implementation of HPV vaccination in South Africa. (February 26, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.phasa.org.za/implementation-hpv-vaccination-south-africa/
Virtual Medical Centre – Human Papillomavirus (HPV). (13 May, 2007). Retrieved from http://www.myvmc.com/diseases/human-papillomavirus-hpv/
Health24 – What you need to know about HPV vaccination. (19 November 2014). Retrieved from http://www.health24.com/Medical/Cervical-cancer/Cervical-cancer-vaccine/HPV-vaccination-the-way-things-are-20130527