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Prevention and Early Detection may Stop HPV Infection Developing into Cancer

28 February 2024 – Each year, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) in association with the International Papilloma Virus Society, features International HPV Awareness Day on 4 March to educate about HPV-related cancer. HPV or the human papillomavirus is a common sexually transmitted infection and is linked to several types of cancer. Almost all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives, usually without symptoms (WHO).

#OneLessWorry #CANSAScreening #CervicalCancer #HPVAwarenessDay #AskAboutHPV

This year’s theme HPV: Learn. Prevent. Screen. with its #onelessworry hashtag reinforces the importance of creating awareness about the life-saving benefits of regular screenings, as well as, advocating young people from 9 to 26 years old to get vaccinated for HPV.

Lorraine Govender, CANSA National Manager: Health Programmes, says “This virus doesn’t discriminate and is common. *It affects four out of five people regardless of age, race, or gender. While many people won’t even realise they have the virus, it may manifest in others as warts on the skin, genital area and throat. If left untreated, the high-risk viruses could lead to cancer. There are 12 high-risk HPV types of which two – HPV 16 and HPV 18 – are responsible for most HPV-related cancers.”

“For most people, their immune systems can usually get rid of the virus within two years*, and some won’t even know they had it. However, there are those whose immune systems cannot kill the virus and if left untreated, it can eventually lead to cancer,” she adds.

There is no cure for HPV, but where it causes abnormal cell changes, it can be treated to prevent the development of cancer. The danger is that the types of HPV that can cause cancer, usually don’t result in any symptoms. It’s for this reason that regular screenings checkups are important for early detection and prevention. In addition, 9 to 26-year-olds are encouraged to get the HPV vaccination to protect them from HPV strains most likely to cause genital warts or cervical cancer. Using tobacco products can also make it harder for the immune system to get rid of HPV.

According to Govender, “Vaccinating girls from the age of nine and up to the age of 26 is critical in preventing them from contracting the virus. The vaccine is an especially effective primary prevention measure for cervical cancer. As CANSA, we encourage parents and guardians of young girls to please sign consent forms at schools where vaccination programmes are offered, so that young people are protected.  The HPV vaccine is available for eligible girls (recommended prior to sexual debut) at no cost, at public schools. For adults, ways in which to lower the risk of being infected include using a condom during sex and avoiding multiple sexual partners.”  The school-based HPV vaccination campaign is currently available to girls only. However, boys aged 9 and older, are encouraged to get the HPV vaccine and caregivers should approach their general practitioner to find out more.

CANSA supports the Department of Health’s HPV School Vaccination Programme to help lower the cervical cancer risk.  Adolescent girls attending public schools between the ages of 9-14 years have access to the HPV vaccine. South Africa’s HPV vaccination programme forms part of global efforts by the World Health Organization to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health threat by 2030. The first step towards this goal is to have 90% of girls fully vaccinated against HPV by the age of 15. With wide vaccination coverage of girls over the age of nine, it’s possible to eliminate HPV in the next few years.

Routine tests for high-risk HPV strains include Pap smear tests for women that check for abnormalities in the cervix or womb. It’s recommended that from the age of 21, women go for a Pap test every three years.  CANSA offers Pap smears at most CANSA Care Centres across South Africa at affordable rates – which includes a clinical breast screening and the laboratory fees. Some public health clinics provide Pap smears at no cost. Asymptomatic women, 30 years and older are eligible to be screened three times at 10-year intervals assuming that no abnormalities are found during screening. If women experience abnormal symptoms, they can request a Pap smear at public health clinics. HIV positive women are eligible for a Pap smear at diagnosis and every three years thereafter if negative for cervical cancer (yearly if screening is positive).

“Whatever the cause of your HPV infection or that of your child, you need to have it checked out by a medical professional. Early detection can prevent you or your loved one getting seriously ill. Don’t let feelings of embarrassment stand in the way of treatment,” explains Govender.

For more information on HPV and how to prevent it or treat it, go to www.cansa.org.za

*https://www.askabouthpv.org/hpv-facts/what-is-hpv

(For more information, please contact Lucy Balona, Head: Marketing and Communication at CANSA at email lbalona@cansa.org.za. Call 011 616 7662 or mobile 082 459 5230.)

CANSA offers a unique integrated service to the public and to all people affected by cancer. CANSA is a leading role-player in cancer research and the scientific findings and knowledge gained from our research are used to realign our health programmes, as well as strengthen our watchdog role to the greater benefit of the public. Our health programmes comprise health and education campaigns; CANSA Care Centres that offer a wide range of care and support services to those affected by cancer; stoma and other clinical support; medical equipment hire, as well as a toll-free line to offer information and support. We offer a Tele Counselling service in seven languages free of charge. We also supply patient care and support in the form of 8 CANSA Care Homes in the main metropolitan areas for out-of-town cancer patients and CANSA-TLC lodging for parents and guardians of children undergoing cancer treatment.

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