Sex, HPV, and cervical cancer

Do you have an active sex life? Are you popular with the opposite sex and have multiple sexual partners? If so, you could contract a number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). One of these is an HPV infection that could lead to cervical cancer.

HPV is short for human papillomavirus. There are over a hundred varieties of HPV that cause warts on the feet, face, genitals, or neck. This happens when the virus enters the body through a cut or small tear in the skin.  The usual victims of HPV infection are people with numerous sex partners or when a person has sex with someone who fits the former description. Also at risk are those with a weakened immune system, damaged skin, and individuals who touch another person’s warts.

Not all HPV infections result in cancer. The ones that affect the genitals, however, are most likely to cause cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and back of the throat. An HPV infection can also cause cancer of the cervix – the lower part of the uterus.

How does this happen? Normally, the body’s immune system stops the HPV from causing trouble. In others, the virus lives on for years and converts normal cells into cancerous cells.

The link between HPV and cervical cancer was emphasized during a recent roundtable discussion entitled, “Bridging HPV and Cancer: Why it Matters” at Shangri-La Hotel at the Fort Manila in Taguig City. During the event, medical practitioners specializing in HPV studies underscored the burden of HPV and how it can prohibit people, especially women, from having a healthy future.

The speakers were Dr. F. Xavier Bosch, senior consultant to the Cancer Epidemiology Research Program at Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) Information Centre in Spain and Dr. Sybil Bravo, obstetrician-gynecologist, infectious diseases specialist, and clinical associate professor at the University of the Philippines – College of Medicine and Philippine General Hospital.

The two shared insights on the incidence of HPV infection, the relevance of the different HPV types, their association with several cancers, and the major barriers and success stories surrounding to the prevention of HPV infection.

They said cervical cancer caused by HPV infection is a prolific killer and the fourth most common cancer among women across the globe.

In the Philippines, cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among Filipino women next to breast cancer. Although cervical cancer screening tests are readily available for early treatment or prevention, more than 6,000 Filipinas are still diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. Within five years of diagnosis, more than half of those women will die.

Early stage cervical cancer has no symptoms, but more advanced cases are characterized by vaginal bleeding after sex or between periods, a heavy vaginal discharge with a foul odor, and pelvic pain during intercourse.

Unfortunately, not all people know about this worldwide health problem or the link between HPV and cancer. While this problem can easily be prevented by vaccination that has been available since 2006, less than five percent of Filipino women have taken advantage of this life-saving procedure.

The Department of Health (DOH), with the support of multi-stakeholder groups, recently included the quadrivalent HPV vaccine in its school-based national immunization program to protect young girls from diseases caused by HPV infections.

The immunization initiative was previously implemented through the community-based approach. The DOH’s goal hopes to vaccinate 720,000 young girls this year. From 20 provinces, the scope of the expanded vaccination program now spans 56 provinces and cities across the country.

The quadrivalent HPV vaccine used by the DOH is available in more than 130 countries globally. It is part of the national immunization programs of many nations. It covers HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18.

The other two types of HPV vaccines are the bivalent vaccine, which covers HPV types 16 and 18, and the nonavalent HPV vaccine which covers nine HPV types, including the seven most common high-risk types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, 58, and the two most common genital warts-causing types 6 and 11.

HPV strains 16 and 18 have been specifically identified as the main cause of cervical cancers globally. HPV type 45 is the next most common cancer-causing type in the Philippines. Additionally, HPV strains 45, 52, 58 and 31 collectively account for approximately 21% of cervical cancer cases based on the worldwide statistics culled by the ICO Information Centre.

Both Bosch and Bravo emphasized the need for continued multi-sector collaboration to help achieve an HPV-free future and further spread awareness on the threat posed by HPV and the significance of cervical cancer screening and immunization.

This includes government agencies, non-government organizations, the academe, the medical community, private sector, members of the media, and particularly mothers who have the primary role of helping their daughters lead a brighter future away from the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases such as cervical cancer. To learn more about HPV, visit www.helpfighthpv.com.

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