DURBAN – Healthcare professionals are cautioning South African women not to skip their regular medical check-ups because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
They said due to many postponing a visit to their doctor for anything that is not immediately uncomfortable or noticeably concerning, the risk of undiagnosed illness increased.
Dr Emmanuel Majachani, a specialist gynaecologist practising at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital, said by skipping regular screenings, women are putting their health at risk, particularly when it comes to highly prevalent and serious illnesses such as cervical cancer.
Majachani said cervical cancer was the second most common type of cancer and the leading cause of cancer related death in South African women.
“However, it need not be a death sentence, as it is highly treatable if detected in its early stages through a simple pap smear. The lack of regular screening is what has caused this terrible statistic to become an avoidable reality for so many women out there.
“Furthermore, cervical cancer can largely be prevented by having the HPV vaccine earlier on in life. We are well equipped to not only treat but also to avert this devastating illness, however we need proactive thinking and behaviour to do so.”
Dr Majachani points out that while it is not always known what leads to cancer, when it comes to cancer of the cervix – the passage to the womb – the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause.
He added that the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) cites high risk strains of HPV as causing up to 70% of cervical cancers, while early diagnosis and treatment of precancerous lesions prevent up to 80% of cervical cancers in high resource countries, where regular cervical cancer screening is routine.
He said: “HPV is a very common virus that most people will come into contact with in the course of their lives. Certain strains of HPV are transmitted sexually, and some of these present a particularly high risk for cervical cancer. In South Africa, types 16 and 18 are particularly dangerous.
“Unfortunately, women with HPV who do not go for a regular pap smear would not know that they have the virus unless they develop a secondary condition, such as genital warts. These warts can occur externally, in which case you would notice them, but they can also occur internally. Treatment may require surgery, depending on the size of the warts, but topical creams or gels containing immune modulators help your immune system to fight the virus in that area and will treat the warts effectively.
“Perhaps more importantly however, is that once you know you have HPV it becomes much easier to manage the risk. Women with high risk strains of HPV should go for a pap smear every year. All other women should start having pap smears at the age of 18 and should go every one to three years, depending on the advice of their healthcare practitioner. Pap smears involve taking a sample of cervical cells and are quick to do but may be a bit uncomfortable for some women,” he said.
The doctor advised that the HPV vaccine could be given between 10 and 26 years of age, and preferably to young women who are not yet sexually active, as it is then most effective.
Majachani said: “Young women who are sexually active can still receive the vaccine, however, and if the results of a pap smear indicate that a woman within these age groups has abnormal cells, we can remove them and there is still a benefit of receiving the vaccine at that point. For women who are older than 26, the benefit is minimal and the vaccine is therefore not recommended beyond this point.
“Other forms of protection against sexually transmitted HPV include using a condom, as the virus is transmitted through genital contact,” he says.