Human Papilloma Virus and Cervical Cancer

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that are extremely common worldwide (over 100 different types). There are two types of HPV (16 & 18) which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Most sexually active women & men will be infected at some point in their lives. In some cases, HPV Infection progresses to cervical changes also called Precancerous Lesions (span of 8-15 years). Others may clear naturally. Although it is true that HPV is sexually transmitted, penetrative sex is not always required for transmission. Skin-to-skin genital contact is a well-recognized mode of transmission and can cause other types e.g. cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, & penis.

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related disease. Majority of HPV infections (remember there are over 100 types) do not cause symptoms or disease; & they resolve spontaneously. I wish all could HPV Infections could do that but, again, not known why, persistent infection with specific types of HPV (most frequently types 16 & 18) may lead to precancerous lesions.  If untreated, these cervical precancerous lesions may progress to invasive cervical cancer (this usually takes many years). It takes 8-15 years (sometimes even 20 years) for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems.

NOTE: It can take only 5 to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems, e.g. those with untreated HIV infection. Symptoms of cervical cancer tend to appear only after the cancer has reached an advanced invasive stage these (signs & symptoms) can include:

  1. irregular or abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods or after sex);
  2. pain during intercourse
  3. smelly discharge

Other signs & symptoms that one should not ignore (can also be signs of other conditions) include fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite;

Many people in our villages & communities don’t know that cervical cancer is preventable through:

  1. HPV Vaccination for Girls aged 9-13 years.
  2. routine screening of sexually active women

HPV Vaccine as Cervical Cancer Prevention:
This works best if administered prior to exposure to HPV. Therefore, best given before first sexual activity.

Routine Screening as Cervical Cancer Prevention:
There are 3 types of screening tests:

  1. HPV testing for high-risk HPV types
  2. Pap test for cervical changes
  3. Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) for pre-cancer lesions screening is recommended for every woman from aged 30 to 49 at least once in a lifetime and ideally more frequently.

In countries like Kenya where we don’t have consistent national screening programmes, women aged 50 – 65 should also be screened.  Exciting news is that the HPV Vaccine will be available for our girls in 2019 – thanks to Ministry of Health. We are working closely with Ministry of health and Women4Cancer on ways to stop cervical cancer through HPV Vaccine to young girls.

What you need to do!

  1. Go Get Screened. If you are a woman aged between 30 – 65 and have never been screened, you are at risk… 
  2. take a friend with you (sisters keeper) …
  3. when the vaccine is available – get your girls 9 – 13 years vaccinated

(Credits to Benda N. Kithaka. Follow her on twitter @bendak)