Do you know that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer? If caught early, it is highly treatable and is associated with long survival and good quality of life.
Cervical cancer is caused Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are hundreds of types of HPV. However, the specific types that can cause cervical cancer are spread through intimate sexual contact.
How can you protect yourself from HPV infection?
There are several ways to do this; get vaccinated, use condoms, and avoid sexual contact. The vaccine against HPV has now been available for over 10 years. In countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where vaccination was introduced in 2008, the incidence of cervical cancer, genital warts and abnormal pap smears has reduced substantially.
Because HPV lives in the skin, the use of condoms in preventing HPV infection is not very effective, compared to condoms preventing other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, gonorrhoea and chlamydia.
HPV can also lie dormant for many years; thus, one can be infected without symptoms for many years. It is estimated that one in three women below 30 will be infected with HPV.
Most health organisations recommend vaccination to girls between the ages of 9-15. This is meant to target girls and women before they are potentially exposed to the virus in future.
However, the vaccine may be administered to anyone until age 45. The effectiveness of the vaccine cannot be ascertained after sexual activity has begun, as you may have already been exposed.
There are 3 ways to do this;) Pap smears, HPV testing, and visual inspection. Pap smears are tests done in the clinic by a healthcare provider. Although uncomfortable, this should not be painful.
During a pap smear, the clinician will take a sample of cells from the cervix using a brush.
HPV testing is now the most recommended test. This test is done using a swab. This may even be done by a patient herself! If the test is negative, no further testing is needed.
If positive, the patient will be asked to visit a gynaecologist for further testing.
Visual inspection of the cervix may also be done to check for any early changes that may lead to cancer. During this procedure, the clinician examines the cervix after it has been soaked in acetic acid, which is also known as vinegar.
If abnormal areas are seen, a simple freezing treatment (cryotherapy) is usually offered on the spot with a 10-minute procedure. A patient may also be referred to a gynaecologist for further treatment.
Dr Migowa is a consultant paediatrician and Adolescent Health Expert at Aga Khan University Hospital.