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Cervical cancer and HPV

Sunday, September 09, 2018

For the month of September, Your Health Your Wealth, in partnership with the Ministry of Health, will be discussing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against cancers, including cervical cancer. We invite you to send your queries to healthandwealth@jamaicaobserver.com to be answered throughout this series.

TODAY we will focus on the connection between human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and cervical cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women globally, with more than 90 per cent of cases occurring in low/middle-income countries. Every year 530,000 new cases are diagnosed, while there are approximately 270,000 deaths.

However, without any intervention, it is estimated that by 2050, patients diagnosed with cervical cancer will increase to one million per year with approximately 90 per cent of the deaths in developing countries.

The cervix is the lowest portion of a woman's uterus (womb), connecting the uterus with the vagina. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent infection with HPV, a group of approximately 200 viruses that infect epithelial (skin) tissue. HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact, from mother to child at birth, and through contaminated surfaces.

Although most HPV infections have no symptoms and can become undetectable after a while, some HPV infections can persist.

According to mayoclinic.com, “When exposed to HPV, a woman's immune system usually prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small group of women, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.”

HPV may, however, affect other parts of the body, as at least 14 types of HPV have been found to cause cancer of the penis, anus and oropharynx (throat). Notably, types 16 and 18 have been found to be responsible for 70 per cent of cancers of the cervix.

In the Caribbean, cervical cancer remains a significant public health concern, being the second most commonly diagnosed cancer and cause of cancer-related deaths for women of all ages.

The Ministry of Health reports that current estimates indicate that every year in Jamaica, 392 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Of this number, 185 die from the disease, with the majority of deaths occurring in women in their most productive years of life — between 40 and 64 years of age.

HPV prevalence studies conducted locally in 2010 revealed that the overall prevalence of any HPV infection was 54 per cent, more than half the population of women. The cancer-causing HPV types were detected in 34.9 per cent of the women. Additionally, HPV types 16 and 18 were found in 10.5 per cent of the general population and in 71 per cent of women with abnormal pap smears.

Cervical cancer tends to be slow-growing, its progression through precancerous changes provides opportunities for screening with annual pap smears, early detection and treatment.

The good news is that cervical precancerous changes and cancer can be prevented by getting the HPV vaccine, which offers protection against infections with the HPV strains that cause cervical cancer.

Join us next week for more on the HPV vaccine. What are your concerns, what are you not sure about? We would love to hear from you.