Health & Fitness

A vaccine that prevents cervix, penile cancers

vaccine

Cervical Cancer Vaccines. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Summary

  • Cervical cancer ranks as the number one leading cause of cancer deaths of Kenyan women and is the second most common female cancer in women aged 15 to 44 years in Kenya.
  • The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that is associated with anal and genital cancers.
  • HPV infection in the genitals can cause cancer of the cervix or vagina in women or cancer of the penis in men.

Cervical cancer ranks as the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), globally, and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women and yet it is a preventable disease.

Deaths

About 3,211 Kenyan women die from cervical cancer every year. In addition, cervical cancer ranks as the number one leading cause of cancer deaths of Kenyan women and is the second most common female cancer in women aged 15 to 44 years in Kenya.

A common virus

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that is associated with anal and genital cancers. Normally, people are infected with HPV if their genitals or mouths touch the genitals of someone infected with the virus. HPV can also be spread by close genital-to-genital touch.

Types of cancer

HPV infection in the genitals can cause cancer of the cervix or vagina in women or cancer of the penis in men. Other types of HPV can cause genital warts in women and men. HPV infection also causes anal cancer and oral cancer in both women and men.

Cervical cancer is by far the most common HPV-related disease. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be attributable to HPV infection. The disease causes more deaths — at 12 percent of those diagnosed than breast cancer, of which nine percent of those diagnosed die.

Lack of awareness

In Kenya, the worrying rise in cervical and penile cancers and deaths is due to lack of awareness, failure to screen people early enough for the diseases and late diagnosis.

There is a great need to focus and give attention to the HPV vaccine. As an advocate for the vaccine, any type of cancer that has a vaccine and can be prevented, therefore Kenyans should take it.

Appropriate age

The vaccine is used to prevent the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers as well as some cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils).

Ideally, the vaccine should be administered to girls and women before they become sexually active and exposed to HPV. The WHO recommends vaccination to start as early as 10 years.

Girls and boys aged 11 to 12 years require two injections of the HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Teens and young adults who start the vaccination later, at ages 15 through 26 years, need three doses of the HPV vaccine.

It is highly recommended that women aged between 21 and 29 do pap smear tests to check for any abnormality of the cervix every three years. After 30 years, the pap tests should be combined with HPV gene test, and done every five years until a woman reaches 65 years of age.

Strong evidence

The WHO recommends that comprehensive cervical cancer control should include primary prevention (vaccination against HPV), secondary prevention (screening and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions), tertiary prevention (diagnosis and treatment of invasive cervical cancer) and palliative care.

The HPV vaccine is very good at preventing the infections that are caused by the virus and more than 270 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed around the world since 2006. Safety studies continue to show that HPV vaccination is very safe and effective.

There is also strong evidence from large population-based studies that show HPV vaccination does not have any significant effect on clinical indicators of risky sexual behaviour among adolescent girls.

These findings suggest that fears of increased risky sexual behaviour following HPV vaccination are unwarranted and should not be a barrier to our young adolescent girls from taking this particular vaccine.

In the long run, the HPV vaccination will go a long way towards preventing and reducing the burden of cervical cancer disease in Kenya and by rallying support from all the key stakeholders, we will be able to protect our girls and secure their future.

Dr Warfa is a consultant gynae-oncologist at Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi