Preventing HPV, stopping cervical cancer
Human papillomavirus or HPV has long haunted us. As the most common sexually transmitted infection, nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one of HPV’s more than 150 strains at some point in their lives.
More alarmingly, most of these people will never know that they have been infected and may give HPV to a partner without knowing it.
But while many of these HPV strains are harmless, there are a few that concern doctors including serotypes 6 and 11 that lead to the development of itchy, unsightly and infectious genital warts and serotypes 16 and 18 that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions among women.
There is also strong evidence of link between these two high-risk serotypes (16 and 18) and cancers of the anus, oropharynx (middle part of the throat behind the mouth), vagina, vulva and penis.
Fortunately, there is a vaccine that protects against these four strains of HPV, a reason why the Department of Health has been, for years, pushing its free vaccination of girls in the nine to 10 age group.
“HPV vaccination is most effective when given during childhood or adolescence, i.e. before sexual encounter, when HPV infection risk is nil or at its lowest. Vaccination at a young age is also ideal because this is when the immune system is at its strongest and, therefore, will mount a robust response to the vaccine,” explained Dr. Cecilia Llave, past president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology of the Philippines and program director of the Cancer Institute Foundation.
Anti-HPV vaccine campaign
For its most recent effort, the Department of Health has earmarked P795 million for a campaign that purchased two dosages of quadrivalent anti-HPV vaccine in order to immunize more than 300,000 Grade 4 students in the 20 poorest provinces in the country.
Access to HPV vaccines for adolescent girls in the Philippines is specially important since cervical cancer remains the second leading cause of death among Filipino women, next only to breast cancer.
With around 6,000 new cases detected annually, cervical cancer claims the lives of 4,380 Filipino women every year.
According to DOH, administering the HPV vaccine remains the best approach. These young girls may not be thinking about being sexually active yet, however the vaccine works best if it is given before exposure to HPV—that is, before sexual activity commences.
Health authorities said HPV vaccination should be regarded as a normal part of growing up and that that there is no evidence that girls who receive the vaccine have sex earlier than those who do not have the vaccine.
In other countries such as Australia where there is higher HPV vaccination coverage, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that the vaccination reduced the number of cases of pre-cancers of the cervix in young women in that country. Also, genital warts have decreased dramatically in young women by 85 percent and men by 71 percent in Australia since the HPV vaccine was introduced.
However, the HPV vaccine is not meant to replace cervical cancer screening. Llave reminded: “No vaccine is 100 percent effective. There are still other HPV types that can cause cervical cancer that are not contained in the vaccine as well as other causes and types of cervical cancer which are not HPV-related (which is why it is still important for women in their 20s to undergo regular cervical screening annually or as advised by their OB/Gyn).”
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