Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to raise awareness of cervical cancer and the heightened risk for those living with HIV. pic: pexels.com

The Aids Healthcare Foundation said Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to raise awareness of cervical cancer and the heightened risk for those living with HIV.

South Africa continues to be encumbered with the highest levels of HIV infection in the world, with 7.2 million people presently living with HIV/AIDS. 60% of those living with HIV/AIDS are women.

1 in 39 South African women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, making it the second most prevalent cancer in women according to the cancer association of South Africa. In 2012, 7735 new cases were diagnosed with a mortality of 4248.

Cervical cancer occurs when the cells in the cervix become abnormal and result in tumour formation. Identification and removal of pre-cancerous cells of the cervix can render this disease virtually preventable.

70% of all cervical cancers can be accounted to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and body fluids and affect 7 out of 10 people.

Hilary Thulare, AHF South Africa, Country Programme Director said “Women infected with HPV are also more at risk of acquiring HIV. Primary prevention for contracting HPV is condom use, delaying sexual debut, reducing one’s number of sexual partners, to stop smoking or rather to never start and to vaccinate girls between the age of 9 and 13 years.”

There are over 170 strains of HPV, 40 of which can be sexually transmitted and two of which are high risk for cervical cancer.

Dr. Lerato Gabela, supervising doctor at the AHF Ithembalabantu Clinic in Umlazi, said: “We remain critically concerned with the health of women in South Africa. Women living with HIV are more at risk of contracting HPV, due to their compromised immune system, and are more at risk of HPV progressing into cancer. We are so committed to preventing cervical cancer that we urge all of our recently diagnosed, HIV positive female patients to have a pap smear immediately.”

A pap smear is a screening test, by a healthcare provider, that involves swabbing cervical cells. This simple procedure is mildly uncomfortable but not painful and yields results on the health of cells. Women from the age of 30 should receive regular pap smears. This age has been brought forward from the previous age of 40 years. AHF recommends all HIV positive woman are tested from the age of 18 years.

Should symptoms of this non-hereditary cancer present, it can include heavy periods, continuous vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding between cycles or with sexual intercourse.

Thulare urges all women to have a pap smear this month, irrespective of their HIV status in order to detect cervical cancer early and improve health outcomes.