Empowering women to stand up against HPV and Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is a preventable cancer and highly treatable if diagnosed early. In 2020, cervical cancer claimed the lives of over 300,000 women globally. In the Philippines, 11 women die of the disease each day. This stark reality is a wake-up call for getting to the bottom of cervical cancer and taking steps to eliminate it, so it affects women no further.

Women and their loved ones need to be equipped with the knowledge on how to prevent the disease, identify its initial symptoms all while empowering them to get a proper diagnosis and encouraging them to consult a doctor about their gynecologic health.

Where cervical cancer starts

The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus commonly spread through sexual contact. WHO states that 95% of cervical cancer cases are because of persistent, untreated HPV infections. Though pre-cancers rarely cause symptoms, recognizing early warning signs of cancer is essential. Talk to your gynecologist if you are experiencing the following:

  • unusual bleeding between periods, after menopause, or after sexual intercourse
  • increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • symptoms like persistent pain in the back, legs, or pelvis
  • weight loss, fatigue, and loss of appetite
  • vaginal discomfort
  • swelling in the legs
Beyond myths: Understanding the risks of HPV

Eliminating cervical cancer involves understanding the disease and debunking myths that lead to misinformation so those affected can make better-informed, fact-based health choices.

MYTH: Monogamous people can’t get HPV or cervical cancer.
FACT: Everyone who is sexually active can get HPV.

The risks of contracting HPV extend beyond supposed promiscuous behavior. HPV infections may persist for years before becoming apparent so it can be difficult to trace the source of infection. Preventive measures like safe sex practices are paramount.

MYTH: Only women can get HPV.
FACT: All individuals can get HPV.

While cervical cancer is often associated with women, HPV infections can affect men as well. Men can also suffer from severe health consequences due to HPV, including developing penile or anal cancer.

MYTH: You can only get HPV if you’ve had sexual intercourse.
FACT: You can contract it from intimate skin-to-skin contact.

HPV is usually transmitted through sexual contact, but can also be contracted through close skin-to-skin contact. Non-penetrative sexual activities and oral sex pose potential risks for HPV transmission.

Prevention strategies against HPV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, in most cases, 9 out of 10 cases of HPV may resolve within two years without causing any health complications. However, persistent HPV infections can lead to the formation of precancerous warts that may progress, if untreated, to the likes of cervical, vaginal, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers. As HPV infections may take years, even decades, to progress into cancers, the CDC recommends the following measures to help lower the chances of developing this disease

  • Immunization against HPV.
  • HPV and cervical cancer screening for women aged 21 to 65.
  • Safe sex practices (ex. condom use, monogamy, etc).

Similarly, the ABC approach – used to prevent the spread of all common sexually transmitted diseases and not just HPV – is encouraged. The USAID defines this approach as population-specific interventions, emphasizing abstinence for the youth and the unmarried; mutual faithfulness; and correct and consistent use of condoms for the sexually active.

A-B-C means:
Abstinence

A straightforward yet effective preventive measure for HPV, abstinent individuals significantly reduce their risk of HPV transmission. This approach is more relevant for those who have not yet initiated sexual activity, or those seeking to minimize their risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Be Faithful

Faithfulness or monogamy, where a singular sexual partner is assured, is a practice that can reduce the risk of exposure to HPV. However, even within monogamous relationships, there is a potential risk of HPV. The virus can be dormant for extended periods, and one partner may unknowingly carry or acquire an infection before entering the relationship.

Condom Use

Regardless of sexual orientation, the correct and consistent use of condoms as part of safe sex practices should always be carried out. It not only minimizes the risk of HPV transmission but also contributes to overall sexual health.

In the Philippines, medical professionals also suggest incorporating two more localized, population-specific approaches to minimize HPV infections across the country further—becoming ABCDV.

Doctor Consult

Regular gynecological check-ups can detect and address HPV infections early. Examinations like Pap smears and HPV tests are crucial for timely intervention and management. Healthcare providers can also discuss the possibility of HPV vaccination.

Vaccination

Vaccination against HPV is a powerful preventive strategy to curb the incidence of cervical cancer. It is recommended for both males and females, ideally between the ages of nine and fourteen years old. Those older can still consult with their doctor on the possible benefits of an HPV vaccine.

Immunization is also part of WHO’s ongoing plan to eliminate cervical cancer called the 90-70-90 targets:

  • 90% of girls are fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine by age 15.
  • 70% of women are screened with a high-performance test by age 35 and by age 45.
  • 90% of women identified with cervical disease receive treatment (90% with pre-cancer treated, and 90% with invasive cancer managed).

After vaccination, continuous cervical cancer screening is still important. Although the vaccine offers protection against the majority of HPV types linked to cervical cancer, it does not cover all of them. Additionally, those who were vaccinated after becoming sexually active may not fully benefit from the vaccine if they have already been exposed to HPV.

By understanding HPV and cervical cancer, knowing the prevention measures, and advocating for early detection and timely diagnosis, we take part in reducing the global burden of HPV-related diseases and safeguarding the well-being of future generations. Through this, we can strive towards a world where cervical cancer is not only treatable but preventable!

Follow Guard Against HPV to see more information like this and learn more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones!

 


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