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Women's Health

HPV Viral Before the Internet – 4 March International HPV Awareness Day

4 March is International HPV Awareness Day – #HPV #askaboutHPV #InternationalHPVAwarenessDay

Media release – 04 March 2020 – Geneva – International HPV Awareness Day on March 4th sets the human papillomavirus in the global spotlight, and that’s important.  HPV is a serious health issue associated with 1 in 20 of all cancer cases in the world.  Each year nearly half a million people die from HPV-related cancer. Many of those deaths could be prevented though access to vaccines and cervical screening programs.

Today, a global partnership of over 80 organizations, led by the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS) have mobilized to raise awareness and understanding about HPV around the world.  Partners of the HPV Awareness Campaign (of which CANSA is part) ‘think globally and act locally,’ using social media and community events to get people of all ages and backgrounds talking about HPV, learning how it affects them and taking action to reduce their risks.

HPV infection is common. It is the world’s most prevalent sexually transmitted infection 80% of people will contract the HPV virus at some point in their lives. Most people do not think the virus affects them and most will be unaware they have it which increases the risk of HPV-related cancer. It’s important that we all understand and manage risks.

HPV is preventable and the cancer risks from HPV are avoidable. There are actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of HPV-related disease. Effective vaccines are available and effective for male and females.  Access to cervical screening programs can identify the virus and spot cell changes that are precursors to cancer.

The International HPV Awareness Day Campaign ‘Viral Before the Internet’ aims to empower people with the information they need to make informed choices for their health.  By speaking openly about the virus and sharing the facts, it seeks to remove the misunderstandings and stigma that often act as a barrier to obtaining appropriate healthcare, leaving people vulnerable to real risks.

“Thankfully, more and more people are making the connection between HPV and certain cancers, such as cervical cancer. That’s helping us move forward with promoting effective prevention measures to stop HPV. If we stop HPV, cancer goes down by 5%. That saves lives.” said IPVS President Prof Margaret Stanley.

In 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a call to action to eliminate cervical cancer, which has stimulated action from governments around the world. IPVS has issued its own policy statement calling on governments to adhere to the standards set out by WHO in relation to access to HPV prevention and screening. Around 90% of cervical cancer cases are HPV-related.

‘Quite understandably, policy and public attention has been focused on cervical cancer’ said IPVS Advocacy Chair Joel Palefsky. ‘But HPV shouldn’t just be the concern of women. The virus is carried by men as well as women, and males are also at risk of HPV-related cancers. Everyone is potentially affected by HPV – and everyone can do something to reduce the risks simply by sharing information and sparking the conversation about HPV.  Awareness and education are important first steps toward prevention.’ he concluded.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for “human papillomavirus”. There are around 200 types of HPV and many are sexually transmitted. Some HPV types only infect the genital region, some can cause warts and others can cause life-threatening cancers such as cervical cancer and cancer of the penis, anus, vagina, vulva and throat.

How do I get HPV?

HPV only infects skin cells and is spread through skin-to-skin contact. The HPV types that infect the genital region, anus and throat are spread through sexual contact.

How can I avoid getting HPV?

Avoiding HPV entirely can be difficult- more than 80% of sexually active people get at least one genital HPV infection at some point in their lives! But there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk 1) If you are eligible or if your health care provider thinks you might benefit from the vaccine, get vaccinated. Vaccination prevents the most dangerous HPV infections and some vaccines also prevent genital warts. 2) Consistent condom use can reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of getting HPV. 3) reduce the number of sexual partners that you have.

If I get HPV will I get cancer?

Only a small fraction of people who get HPV develop cancer, so having HPV does not mean that you will get cancer! However, it is important to reduce the risk of getting HPV by being vaccinated, if you are eligible or if your health care provider thinks you might benefit from it, and getting screened for cervical cancer.

There are so many types of HPV and HPV is extremely common. Most of the time, HPV is untreated and resolves on its own – we are not even aware we have it. In addition, it is only certain types (e.g. 16 and 18 and some other types) that are associated with cancer and even then, in many cases, HPV resolves and does not progress and no cancer develops. Only in some cases this happens and there may be other factors at play. Eg. Women with HIV are more vulnerable to persistent HPV which can then go on to develop into cervical (and other) cancers. While most cervical cancers are related to HPV infection, not all HPV infection leads to cervical cancer – in fact most of the time it does not.

How would one suspect that may have cervical cancer?  Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Continuous vaginal discharges
  • Menstrual periods becoming heavier and lasting longer than usual
  • Vaginal bleeding or pain during sexual intercourse
  • Increased urinary frequency
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause

While these symptoms can of course be related to other causes, if you experience any of these symptoms it is best to seek help from a medical professional as soon as possible.

Are there any lifestyle changes I can take to reduce my risk of getting HPV?

Yes! You can reduce your risk of getting HPV by getting vaccinated if you are eligible, using condoms and reducing the number of sexual partners that you have. You can also reduce your risk of getting cancer if you’ve already been infected with HPV by getting screened if you are eligible, and by not smoking.

How can the public get involved and spread awareness?

The best thing to do is to encourage and remind the important women in your lives – your daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, wives etc. to go for screening ideally from around 18 years and continue to do so until they are 70, and if you have a young daughter, to make sure she receives the HPV vaccine. While cervical cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer for women in South Africa, the reality is that it is preventable. We have the tools to prevent this cancer if used properly. The South African cervical cancer policy entitles girls aged 9 to 12 years old access to the HPV vaccine; and women aged 30 to 50 years to cervical cancer screening free of charge. Screening in the public health sector is offered first at age 30 and then at 10 year intervals (i.e. at ages 40 and 50).

Screening is available more regularly for women living with HIV as they are at greater risk of cervical cancer.

What does CANSA offer in relation to cervical cancer?

Are there concerns surrounding stigma and HPV?

Cervical cancer can be stigmatised because HPV is sexually transmitted through skin to skin contact, body fluids and sexual intercourse. This is unfortunate because the reality is that anyone who has ever been sexually active is at risk for HPV. It is extremely common and in most cases has no symptoms and resolves on its own. It is important that we address stigma, because stigma is part of what stops women from going for screening, stops them from seeking help when they experience symptoms, and stops them from remaining on treatment.

Sources

  • Interview with Dr Melissa Wallace, CANSA Head of Research on Afternoon Express, SABC3
  • Ask About HPV – an initiative of the International Papillomavirus Society, of which CANSA is a partner.

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