The Low-Down On The Cancer Vaccination

by | Oct 21, 2015 | Health

By Prof Hennie Botha

Should you get the jab?

One in 26 South African women will develop cervical cancer, yet a simple injection can provide immunity against it. A gynaecological oncologist gives us the low-down.

How common is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in South African women, responsible for more than 3 000 deaths a year. It’s estimated that one in 26 women in SA will develop cervical cancer and more than 6 500 new cases are diagnosed each year. It starts at the mouth of the uterus and causes a malignant growth that can involve nearby organs such as the bladder and bowel. From there it may also spread to the rest of the body via the blood and lymph nodes. SA has one of the highest incidences of cervical cancer in the world.

How can you vaccinate someone against cancer?

Cervical human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the single most important risk factor for the development of cervical cancer. If a woman has a persistent HPV infection, the high-risk type of HPV becomes integrated in the cervical cells. A cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) lesion may develop – in other words, the skin of the cervix becomes abnormal and, if left untreated over time, the abnormality could develop into cervical cancer. Vaccinating against HPV can therefore prevent cervical cancer. cause either genital warts or cancer of the cervix, anus or, in men, penis – but these are not the same as the HPV strains that cause warts on other parts of the body. About half to three-quarters of sexually active people will have HPV at some stage of their lives.

Read More: 7 Things You Should Know About Gential Warts

What are the symptoms of HPV?

Genital HPV usually has no symptoms, unless it’s a type that causes genital warts, which may appear weeks, months or even years after exposure. Genital warts aren’t always visible, but when they are, they may be raised and slightly itchy. In some cases they can become very big; for example, during pregnancy and if your immune system is weak. But most people will never know they have HPV.

What is HPV?

HPV belongs to a family of over 100 highly contagious viruses. It spreads through skin-to skin contact and can affect all areas of the skin, with certain types infecting both male and female genital areas, including the lining of the vagina and the cervix. Some types of HPV are sexually transmitted.

How is it detected if there are no symptoms?

HPV tests are done on the sample taken during your annual Pap smear. The tests are designed to pick up abnormal cells caused by HPV infection (not HPV itself) before it turns into cancer. If abnormal cells are picked up, your gynae may request a colposcopy, where the cervix is carefully examined using a special microscope.

How does the vaccine work?

Two HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) have been licensed and available in SA for the past four years. In trials involving 19 000 and 18 000 women respectively, both vaccines proved more than 90 percent effective in preventing initial infection. The vaccines contain virus proteins that were identified from the most serious types of HPV, combined with an inactive substance that stimulates the body to cause a strong immune response. The vaccines don’t contain any antibiotics or live viruses.

What can I expect if I get vaccinated?

A series of three injections of the same vaccine is administered within a period of six months. Studies have indicated good protection against HPV for more than 20 years so a booster shot shouldn’t be necessary.

Read More: What’s The Difference Between STDs And STIs?

Are there any side effects?

The most common side effects reported were slight redness and swelling at the site of the injection and, in some cases, a low fever, but symptoms didn’t last longer than 48 hours.

Who should be vaccinated?

The HPV vaccine should be administered before a person becomes exposed to the virus in the first place, which is why some countries have government-funded programmes to administer HPV vaccines to girls aged nine to 12 (at the moment there is no such policy in SA). But it’s worth investigating even if you’re already sexually active, because there are many strains of the virus – speak to your GP or gynaecologist.

How much does the vaccination cost?

The vaccines are difficult to manufacture, so they’re pricey – you’re looking at between R2 500 and R3 000 for three doses and medical aids only cover the cost from the savings portion of the fund. This has led groups such as Dance For A Cure to raise funds for girls to be vaccinated, while simultaneously lobbying for the vaccination to become more affordable for the average South African.

Can HPV infection be treated?

There’s currently no treatment for HPV itself, although if the cervical cells have undergone changes and become abnormal, those areas can be treated. Small, isolated warts can be treated with special creams, cauterisation or freezing, but in most women the infection will be eliminated by the body’s immune system.

Can I do anything to help HPV disappear?

Stop smoking – this can increase your risk for developing cellular abnormalities in the cervix. Stay safe and maintain good sexual health.

Looking for more info on the HPV and cancer link? Here are three ways to keep your vagina healthy, plus the other scary way you can contract HPV.

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