HPV and Cervical Cancer: When Prevention is Possible

HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus that affects skin and mucus membranes. Most people will contract HPV infection in their lifetime and it usually clears up by itself. However, ongoing HPV infections can cause abnormal changes in the lining of the cervix. And if left untreated, these changes can result in normal cells mutating into cancerous cells.

In South Africa alone, roughly 16 million women over the age of 15 are at risk for contracting cervical cancer and 8 South African women die from this disease every day. What makes this disease so frightening is that because it’s a slow-progressing cancer, it’s often too late to treat once the symptoms appear.

HPV Screening and Prevention

As with any other form of cancer, health and lifestyle factors can contribute towards the growth of malignant cells in the cervix. And early detection is crucial: an annual Pap Smear – a procedure in which a sample of cervical cells are examined under a microscope and checked for irregularities – is the most effective method of detecting cervical cancer before symptoms start to appear.

Is it possible to prevent cervical cancer? It most definitely is, which is why the South African government has initiated the HPV vaccine intervention programme that targets young girls, aged 9-13, before they become sexually active. Where many women don’t have access to screening programmes, the prevention of HPV infection could serve as an adjunct to Pap Smear screenings. And just as large-scale vaccination programmes have proven to be highly effective in controlling the morbidity and mortality associated with certain diseases, so too does the HPV vaccination have the potential to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer.

Like other vaccines, the HPV vaccine triggers the body to produce special proteins called antibodies. These help the immune system to fight and clear the HPV infection so that it can’t cause cancer. And the reason it is administered at the beginning of puberty is because the vaccine works best for girls who have not been exposed to the virus through sexual activity.

Vaccine Facts and Features

There are two injections available in South Africa: Cervarix blocks HPV types 16 and 18, whilst Gardasil protects against strains 6, 11, 16 and 18. Your registered nurse, gynecologist or doctor will administer a series of three injections over a period of six months and side effects are minimal: most patients experience redness, swelling, heat and pain at the injection site, whilst some experience headache and fever.

Sister Christine, our registered nurse, is highly experienced and well informed about the latest research and excellent safely profile of the HPV vaccination and will happily answer any of your HPV-related questions. To speak directly to Sister Christine, please contact her on 010 072 5999. To book an appointment for the injection, please contact reception on 011 802 5338.

Published on April 5, 2018