What do you really know about cervical cancer?
That every year around 700 Australian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 200 die from the disease?
That it ranks as the 15th most frequent cancer among women, and the fifth most frequent cancer among women aged between 15 and 44 years of age?
My guess is, unless you have or know of someone who has cervical cancer, those statistics would mean nothing to you.
But this one might:
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) or genital warts and is largely preventable through screening and vaccination.
Yep, here we go with vaccination again. Please, put down your anti-vax pitchforks “” for this one, you should definitely pay attention.
Here are some facts you might be interested in.
Let’s start with Cervical Cancer…
Cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix) is a disease where abnormal cells grow uncontrollably on the cervix of the uterus (womb) and if not treated in time, can spread throughout the body.
Until recently, the only effective way to reduce the risk of invasive cervical cancer was to detect it early by having a Pap smear every two years, starting from age 18 or starting two years after the first sexual contact, if older than 18.
What is HPV?
Genital HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illness. HPV is responsible for:
- almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer
- 90% of anal cancers
- 65% of vaginal cancers
- 50% of vulva cancers
- 35% of penile cancers
- 60% of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).
Four out of five people have at least one type of HPV at some time in their lives. It is sometimes called the ‘common cold’ of sexual activity.
How does HPV spread?
The virus is spread through contact with genital-skin during sexual activity, via tiny breaks in the skin. Usually this happens without anyone ever knowing it or it causing any problems.
Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs.from only one sexual partner.
How does HPV cause cancer?
HPV is a virus that infects the skin, usually through sexual contact, causing cells to grow abnormally. Sometimes these appear as warts.
There are more than 100 strains of HPV, only 14 types have been identified as cancer-causing. Of these, two strains (HPV 16 and 18) cause around 80 percent of all cervical cancers in Australian women.
What is the HPV vaccine?
A vaccine works by injecting a controlled amount of a disease into the body which stimulates the immune system to make antibodies against that disease. The HPV vaccine is based on technology developed in Australia by a team led by former Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer. It provides protection against the strains of HPV that cause 80 percent of cervical cancer in Australian women.
HPV vaccination works best if people are vaccinated before they become exposed to the risk of HPV infection, that is, before they become sexually active. This is why the Government has implemented a school-based HPV vaccination program that provides HPV vaccine for all females through school programs at 12-13 years of age.
The vaccine is given in three injections over six months, in the upper arm or thigh. It is not yet known if booster shots will be necessary in the future.
Are there different types of HPV vaccinations?
There are two HPV vaccines available in Australia. The HPV vaccine given in schools as part of the National Immunisation Program, (Gardasil), protects against infection with the HPV types that cause 70% of cervical cancers, 90% of HPV-related cancers in males, and 90% of genital warts
Why vaccinate against HPV?
Combined with Pap tests, HPV vaccination provides women with their best chance of protection against cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. The number of new cases of cervical cancer is expected to decrease due to Pap test screening and vaccination, making it the only type of cancer that is declining as the population ages.
It provides protection against the strains of HPV that cause 80 percent of cervical cancer in Australian women.
Are there any side effects?
The most common side effects after HPV vaccination are pain, swelling and redness at the vaccination site. There have been NO other recorded side affects.
Why do people argue against vaccination against HPV?
Although the vaccine is largely recognised as a medical breakthrough, its acceptance by the public is lagging for several reasons:
- Underestimation of HPV risk,
- Challenge of completing a three-shot regimen
- Concerns about cost
- Parental barriers to acceptance.
There is also some public concern about vaccine safety in general, although HPV vaccines have excellent safety records.