Did you know that a common virus – Human Papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted through sexual intercourse, is the cause of 70%1 of cervical cancers?
Further research2 indicates that lower-income countries – especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa – are most at risk for cervical cancer with approximately 80% of cervical cancers and 90% of all related deaths being experienced in these regions. In fact, this rings true in South Africa where cervical cancer is the 2nd most commonly diagnosed cancer in women – with 3 027 cervical cancer related deaths each year.
Here’s how you can protect yourself!
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer forms when the DNA in cells in the cervix mutate or change. In some cases, these mutated cells grow out of control, forming a tumor. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women aged 14 to 44 in South Africa, and the leading cause of deaths from cancer among women in general4.
What is HPV and how does it give me cervical cancer?
The HPV virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is so common that 80% of all women would have tested positive for HPV at least one time in their life by age 505. There are over 100 different types of HPV and most of them are harmless, but two types, namely HPV 16 and HPV 18, can lead to cervical cancer or genital warts.
HPV is transmitted through skin to skin contact, body fluids and sexual intercourse. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. The more sexual partners a person has, the higher the risk of contracting HPV. Condom use can reduce HPV risk.
HPV is found in about 99% of cervical cancers6, although in rare cases, other risk factors may trigger the onset of cervical cancer
What else increases my risk for cervical cancer?
Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer.
HIV infection: HIV creates a higher risk because it makes it difficult for the body to fight infections, so HPV is more likely to develop into cervical cancer.
Early sexual activity: Becoming sexually active during puberty can increase the risk for cervical cancer. Researchers think this is because the cervix changes during puberty, making the area more vulnerable to damage.
Chlamydia infection: Women with HPV who have, or have had chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, have an increased risk for cervical cancer. Researchers think that long-term inflammation caused by chlamydia makes it harder for the body to clear the HPV infection.
Have your Pap
Most people with HPV never show any signs they are infected, and cervical cancer may take 20 years or longer to develop after an HPV infection. That’s why Papsmear tests are so important. A Papsmear test doesn’t directly test for cancer or HPV, but it can detect abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV.
The South African HPV Advisory Board recommends that a woman should begin having Pap tests when she becomes sexually active or turns 21. Annual testing should be done until the age of 30 and thereafter every three years7. Check with your doctor how often you should have it done.
Get the HPV vaccine
Two HPV vaccines are available. Both cover strains 16 and 18, and one of the vaccines also protects against genital warts. The HPV vaccine should be given before, or as soon as possible after becoming sexually active.
- These vaccines are available for females aged 9 to 45.
- Dosing is either a 2 or 3 dose regimen, depending on your age.
- One dose costs R542, excluding VAT (standard price set by Health Department), though it can cost between R700 and R1 000 in private sector clinics.
- The vaccine is given free to girls in public schools.
- A registered nurse, gynaecologist or general practitioner administer the vaccine. You need a prescription to have it done at a pharmacy.
Cervical cancer is on the decline in countries where the HPV vaccine is routinely given. It’s good to know that the vaccine and regular Pap smears can greatly reduce your risk of contracting the disease.
Protecting your family’s finances from cervical cancer
While regular screenings and Pap smears are critical, it is also very important to ensure that you are financially covered – should you contract such a cancer or other dread diseases. The last thing you need to worry about, when dealing with a dread disease, is how your family will survive without your income should you not be able to work while going through treatment. Therefore, it is critical that, as women, you look at cover that is tailored to both your unique needs and includes cancers that affect both us, and our children, more commonly. This will give you peace of mind knowing that the only battle you will have to fight is getting back to good health, while your expenses are taken care off.