One of the biggest health issues facing women across the world is the rising rate of cervical cancer. In South Africa, cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 15 to 44 years of age.
Far too many women die of this condition, despite the existence of preventative measures and screening that can detect problems well before the disease becomes fatal. Protect yourself and your daughters from this potentially life-threatening disease by taking action to prevent cervical cancer.
Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to infection with various types of the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. When a woman’s cervix becomes infected with HPV, her natural immunity will usually clear the infection and she may never even know she had the infection. However, in some cases, a woman’s immunity may not succeed in getting rid of the HPV infection. If this happens, the virus can remain on the cervix for years, contributing to the growth of cancer cells on the surface of the cervix.
Since HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, take measures to avoid exposure to the virus. HPV is spread from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact, most often during sexual activity, such as vaginal, anal and oral sex. As it is spread from skin to skin rather than body fluids, it is also possible for a genital infection to spread through hand-to-genital contact.
How to protect yourself against HPV infection
Any woman or girl who is sexually active is at risk for HPV infection and the risks are higher the earlier one starts to have sex and if one has many sexual partners. Your partner may also increase your risks of getting HPV if he has had many sexual partners himself or is not circumcised. Remember that someone can have HPV for years and have no symptoms so may not realise they are passing it on to others.
Condoms provide some protection against HPV, but be warned: they don’t completely prevent infection because they don’t cover the skin of the genital or anal area and won’t prevent hand-to-genital spread either.
Not smoking is an important way to reduce the risk of cervical pre-cancer and cancer.
Vaccines are available that protect against infection with the HPV subtypes that cause cancer. The vaccines require a series of injections (shots). These vaccines can only prevent HPV infection and cannot treat an infection that is already there. That is why, HPV vaccines should ideally be given to girls before they become sexually active. Routine HPV vaccinations for girls should ideally be started at age 11 or 12 but is still recommended for girls and women aged 13 to 26, although the vaccines are far less effective once sexual activity has started. It’s also important to realise that no vaccine provides complete protection, so routine cervical cancer screening is still necessary.
Have regular Papanicolou (Pap) smears
The Pap test involves the collection of cells from the cervix so that they can be examined under the microscope to see if there are any cancerous or pre-cancerous cells . When and how often you should have a Pap test should be discussed with your doctor. In general, it is recommended in South Africa that you have your first Pap test at age 25 years, unless you are HIV positive, in which case you should have a Pap test immediately. Pap testing is normally repeated every 3 to 5 years but your doctor will advise you on this as test frequency depends on a number of other factors.
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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, MediHub cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.