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Empowering women to take a stand against HPV and cervical cancer

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Empowering women to take a stand against HPV and cervical cancer

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. It is a preventable cancer and highly treatable if diagnosed early. In 2020, cervical cancer claimed the lives of more than 300,000 women worldwide. Eleven women die every day from the disease in the Philippines. This grim reality is a wake-up call to get to the bottom of cervical cancer and take steps to eradicate it so that women do not suffer further consequences from it.

Women and their loved ones should be equipped with the knowledge on how to prevent the disease, identify its first symptoms, while at the same time empowering them to make a correct diagnosis and encouraging them to consult a doctor about their gynecological health .

Where cervical cancer begins

The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that usually spreads through sexual contact. The WHO states that 95% of cervical cancer cases are due to persistent, untreated HPV infections. Although pre-cancers rarely cause symptoms, recognizing early warning signs of cancer is essential. Contact your gynecologist if you experience the following:

  • unusual bleeding between periods, after menopause or after sexual intercourse
  • increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • symptoms such as persistent pain in the back, legs or pelvis
  • weight loss, fatigue and loss of appetite
  • vaginal discomfort
  • swelling in the legs
Beyond Myths: Understanding the Risks of HPV

Eradicating cervical cancer means understanding the disease and dispelling myths that lead to misinformation so that those affected can make more informed, evidence-based health choices.

MYTH: Monogamous people cannot get HPV or cervical cancer.
FACT: Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV.

The risks of contracting HPV extend beyond perceived promiscuous behavior. HPV infections can last for years before becoming apparent, which can make it difficult to trace the source of the infection. Preventive measures such as safe sex practices are of utmost importance.

MYTH: Only women can get HPV.
FACT: All individuals can get HPV.

Although cervical cancer commonly occurs in women, HPV infections can also affect men. Men can also suffer serious health consequences due to HPV, including developing penile or anal cancer.

MYTH: You can only get HPV if you have had sexual intercourse.
FACT: You can contract it through intimate skin-to-skin contact.

HPV is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact, but can also be transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact. Non-penetrative sexual activities and oral sex pose potential risks for HPV transmission.

Prevention strategies against HPV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that in most cases, 9 out of 10 cases of HPV can clear up within two years without causing any health complications. However, persistent HPV infections can lead to the formation of precancerous warts which, if left untreated, can progress to cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. Because it can take years or even decades for HPV infections to develop into cancer, the CDC recommends the following measures to help reduce the chance of developing this disease

  • Vaccination against HPV.
  • Screening for HPV and cervical cancer for women aged 21 to 65.
  • Safe sex practices (e.g. condom use, monogamy, etc.).

Likewise, the ABC approach – used to prevent the spread of all common sexually transmitted diseases and not just HPV – is encouraged. The USAID defines these approaches as population-specific interventions, emphasizing abstinence for youth and the unmarried; mutual loyalty; and correct and consistent use of condoms for sexually active individuals.

ABC means:
Abstinence

A simple but effective preventive measure for HPV; Abstinent individuals significantly reduce the risk of HPV transmission. This approach is more relevant for those who have not yet started sexual activity, or for those who want to minimize their risk of sexually transmitted infections (STDs).

Be faithful

Fidelity or monogamy, in which a single sexual partner is secured, is a practice that can reduce the risk of exposure to HPV. However, even within monogamous relationships there is a potential risk of HPV. The virus can lie dormant for long periods of time, and a partner can unknowingly carry or contract an infection before entering into a relationship.

Condom use

Regardless of sexual orientation, correct and consistent use of condoms should always be practiced as part of safe sex practices. It not only minimizes the risk of HPV transmission, but also contributes to overall sexual health.

In the Philippines, medical professionals also suggest incorporating two more local, population-specific approaches to further minimize HPV infections nationwide: ABCDV.

Consult a doctor

Regular gynecological check-ups can detect and tackle HPV infections early. Tests such as Pap smears and HPV tests are crucial for timely intervention and treatment. Healthcare providers can also discuss the possibility of HPV vaccination.

Vaccination

Vaccination against HPV is a powerful preventive strategy to curb the incidence of cervical cancer. It is recommended for both men and women, ideally between the ages of nine and fourteen. Older adults can still talk to their doctor about the potential benefits of an HPV vaccine.

Vaccination is also part of the WHO’s ongoing plan to eradicate cervical cancer 90-70-90 goals:

  • 90% of girls are fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by the age of 15.
  • 70% of women are screened with a powerful test at age 35 and at age 45.
  • 90% of women with cervical disease receive treatment (90% are treated before cancer, and 90% are treated with invasive cancer).

After vaccination, continuous screening for cervical cancer is still important. Although the vaccine protects against most HPV types associated with cervical cancer, it does not cover all of them. In addition, those who are vaccinated after becoming sexually active may not fully benefit from the vaccine if they have already been exposed to HPV.

By understanding HPV and cervical cancer, knowing the prevention measures, and advocating for early detection and timely diagnosis, we participate in reducing the global burden of HPV-related diseases and securing the well-being of future generations. This allows us to strive for a world in which cervical cancer is not only treatable but also preventable!

To follow Watch out for HPV for more information like this and to learn more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones!


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