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World Immunization Week: HPV vaccine could potentially eliminate cervical cancer

Vaccines save lives. Picture: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

Vaccines save lives. Picture: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

Published Apr 28, 2020


Researchers have found the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination to be key in eradicating cervical cancer. 

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths and the second most commonly diagnosed after breast cancer among South African women. About ninety-nine percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.

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As South Africa continues to observe World Immunization Week 2020 (24-30 April) vaccinations are a hot topic with many people holding strong opinions.The aim of this week is to promote the use of vaccines to protect people against diseases and to highlight the importance and efficacy of vaccinations and encourage people to protect themselves, their families and communities at large.

We spoke to Dr David Eedes, clinical oncology advisor of Icon Oncology about  HPV and how we can prevent it. 

What is HPV and how is it contracted?

HPV is widespread and a high percentage of South Africans who are sexually active will become infected with HPV during their lifetime. HPV infection can often go undetected as it generally has no significant effects on a person’s health. In some cases, HPV can cause genital warts which are visible.  HPV is contracted through skin-on-skin contact as well as sexual activity.

How is HPV linked to cervical cancer?

Certain strains such as HPV-16 and HPV-18 can cause the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix which may then lead to cancer development. 99 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection. This infective cause means it is one of the few preventable cancers, if one can prevent the HPV infection or detect the early signs before a cancer is formed.  

How can you get tested for HPV?

Regular screening by means of a PAP test and other examinations can detect the HPV infection and early cell changes of the cervix. This can then be treated, often fairly simply. 

Is it possible to prevent contracting HPV? If so, how? 

HPV is contracted through sexual contact so using condoms during sex will help lower the risk. Vaccination of  all young girls prior to them becoming sexually active is recommended.  For sexually active women, regular PAP tests are recommended so that a health care practitioner will be able to pick up whether you have a strain of HPV that will need to be monitored.

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What is the optimum age to be vaccinated against HPV?

The vaccination is safe and most effective when given from the age of nine years and older or before girls become sexually active. Cervarix® is the vaccination that will be administered in two doses for optimal cover. Cervical cancer, even without HPV vaccination, is a preventable cancer. The vaccination prevents the cause of the disease, but the disease is still preventable by early detection on Pap smears even in women who are not vaccinated.

Why is it important for young males to get vaccinated too?

There is benefit for young males to be vaccinated pre sexual activity to prevent them acquiring HPV and passing it on to sexual partners. HPV is also associated with penile cancer and anal cancer in both men and women.

Can the vaccination be administered if the patient is already sexually active?

The vaccine can be used in any young person but currently the vaccination program in South Africa is targeting pre-sexual females as this is where the biggest benefit will be seen.

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