Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide. Globally, cervical cancer kills one woman every two minutes – In South Africa approximately eight women die of cervical cancer every day.
The main cause of this cancer is a virus called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which is transmitted primarily through sexual contact. Up to 80% of women will acquire an HPV infection in their lifetime and almost 40% of these will be with a high-risk cancer-causing type. “It is very important to be screened for HPV,” says Bernadette Campbell, Group Nursing Service Manager at Clinix Health Group, “because early detection makes cervical cancer highly preventable.”
The HPV test is often used along with the Pap smear as a part of screening. Testing positive for the HPV virus doesn’t mean you will get cervical cancer, Campbell says. “A positive test result means that you have a type of high-risk HPV that’s linked to cervical cancer and it’s a warning sign that cervical cancer could develop in the future. Knowing whether you have a type of HPV that puts you at high risk of cervical cancer means that you and your doctor can better decide on the next steps. These may include follow-up monitoring, further testing or treatment of precancerous cells.”
Significantly there is also now a HPV vaccine which can protect women and young girls from developing cervical cancer. For young girls it must be given before a young girls first sexual encounter as it will then provide her with maximum protection between ages 15 – 25, the period of peak exposure to HPV.
The vaccine protects young women against infection with HPV sub-types 16 and 18 which are the most common cancer-causing virus types.
Campbell reiterates that these vaccines only work to prevent HPV infection not treat an infection that is already there. She does however stress that it is not only beneficial for young girls. “Nearly all women could benefit from vaccination because they can be exposed to the virus at any time of their life.”
“Cervical cancer is preventable with early detection or, depending on your age, with the HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteen girls from age 11 or 12 as it produces a higher immune response in preteens than in older adolescents. We encourage all women who haven’t had the vaccine or HPV test done to contact their doctor to arrange this. It’s important to know your risk and to take steps towards prevention.”
How do you get HPV?
All women who have had sex are at risk for HPV and cervical cancer. HPV is passed on through genital (skin to skin) contact, most often during vaginal or anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex. Most people never even know they have HPV or that they are passing it to their partner, making it difficult to know who gave you HPV or when you got it. HPV is so common that most people get it soon after they start having sex, and it may only be found years later. Most of the time, the body’s immune system fights off HPV naturally within two years– before HPV causes any health problems. It is only when HPV stays on a woman’s cervix for many years that it can cause cervical cancer.