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Women's Health Series - Cervical Cancer: Is It Still a Threat?

Cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer in women globally, remains a significant threat despite advances in medical science. Prevention through HPV vaccination and regular screenings is crucial, with personal hygiene practices also playing a vital role in reducing the risks.
May 15, 2024    |    7 Views
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In a previous article, we briefly explored common health issues among women. We know that other than breast cancer,  gynaecological cancers also contribute to high death rates among women, with Cervical cancer being the fourth most common cancer in women globally, according to WHO. Despite significant advances in medical science, cervical cancer remains a significant public health issue worldwide. While it’s true that cervical cancer rates have declined in many developed countries due to effective screening and vaccination programs, it still poses a considerable threat, particularly in areas where access to preventive healthcare is limited. This blog post explores the current status of cervical cancer, its risk factors, and good practices for prevention.

The Persistent Threat of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer arises from the cells lining the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. It is primarily caused by persistent infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Despite being highly preventable, cervical cancer continues to pose a threat due to multiple socioeconomic and external factors.

Understanding Risk Factors

The primary risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV infection – almost 99% of all cervical cancer causes, but several other factors increase the risk of developing cervical cancer, including:

  1. Multiple full-term pregnancies: Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies may have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

  2. Long-term use of oral contraceptives: Research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer increases the longer a woman takes oral contraceptives, but the risk decreases again after the contraceptives are discontinued.

  3. Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.

  4. Immunosuppression: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, can weaken the immune system, making it harder to fight off HPV infections.

Prevention

Preventing cervical cancer effectively involves several key strategies, primarily focusing on addressing the primary risk factors and utilizing available medical interventions.

1. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination

HPV is the most significant cause of cervical cancer. This is an extremely common DNA virus infecting humans and it is believed that almost everyone will contract HPV at some point in their life. Most of the time the infection will clear out on its own within 1-2 years, even without treatment and without causing any health complications. 


The development and widespread use of HPV vaccines represent a monumental step in preventing cervical cancer. Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix are designed to protect against the types of HPV that cause the majority of cervical cancers. The following are key points regarding HPV vaccination:

Target Age Group: The recommended age for vaccination is typically between 11 and 12 years old, but it can be given as early as age 9. It is most effective when administered before individuals become sexually active. 

Gender Inclusivity:
Primarily recommended for girls, but vaccination is also advised for boys to help prevent the virus’s spread and reduce other HPV-related cancers.

Catch-up Vaccinations:
For those who were not vaccinated at the recommended age, catch-up vaccines are recommended up to age 26, and for some, even up to age 45, depending on individual circumstances and healthcare guidelines.


2. Regular Screening Tests

Screening plays a crucial role in detecting cervical changes before they develop into full-blown cancer:

Pap Smear Test : Women are recommended to start Pap testing at age 21 and continue every three years if the results are normal.

HPV Test : This test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. The HPV test can be done in conjunction with the Pap smear or alone depending on the age and health history.

3. Safe Sexual Practices

Since HPV is sexually transmitted, practising safe sex can significantly reduce the risk of contracting HPV. The use of barrier protection, such as condoms can lower the risk of HPV transmission. However, they do not eliminate the risk entirely, as HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom. Limiting your sexual partners also decreases the likelihood of HPV exposure.

4. Lifestyle Factors

General health improvements can contribute to the prevention of cervical cancer:

No Smoking: Smoking has been linked to cervical cancer, as it helps HPV survive and thrive in the cervix.

Diet and Exercise: A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and maintaining a healthy weight might help reduce the risk of cervical and other types of cancer.

5. Follow-up on Abnormal Screenings

If a screening test results are abnormal, following up with further testing and treatment is crucial. Treatment of pre-cancerous conditions can prevent the development of cancer.

6. Education and Awareness

Raising awareness about cervical cancer, HPV, and the importance of vaccinations and regular screenings is essential. Education empowers individuals to take proactive steps in their health management.

Personal Hygiene Practices for Cancer Prevention

Other than general medical prevention listed above, maintaining good personal hygiene is also a key element in promoting overall health; and can play a role in reducing the risk of developing certain types of cancers, including those linked to viral or bacterial infections such as cervical cancer. These practices include regular hand-washing to help prevent the transmission of organisms that may cause diseases, and maintaining oral as well as genital hygiene. Maintaining genital hygiene is crucial, especially in preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HPV, which is the primary cause of cervical cancer. Both men and women should keep the genital area clean and dry.

Conclusion

While strides have been made in reducing the incidence and mortality of cervical cancer in many parts of the world, it remains a threat—particularly where preventive healthcare is less accessible. The key to changing this narrative lies in global cooperation and local initiatives to improve access to vaccination, screening, and treatment. By prioritizing women’s health and taking proactive measures, we can make significant progress toward eliminating cervical cancer as a critical public health concern. Let’s not allow complacency to undermine the achievements in combating this preventable disease. Awareness, education, and action are our best tools in ensuring that cervical cancer no longer poses a threat to women anywhere in the world.

References

World Health Organization. “Cervical Cancer” https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cervical-cancer, Accessed Date: 14 May 2024.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What Everyone Should Know | Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination | Vaccination and Immunization | CDC.” Www.cdc.gov, 19 Mar. 2020, www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/public/index.html/. Accessed 4 Aug. 2023.

Dr. Zienna Zufida Zainol Rashid. "HPV Immunisation." MyHealth, 19 May 2015, www.myhealth.gov.my/en/vaccine-hpv/. Accessed 8 Sept. 2023.

"Women’s Reproductive Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 May 2022, www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/womensrh/index.htm#print. Accessed 7 Sept. 2023.

"Do Transgender Women Need To Undergo Screening For Cervical Cancer?" Medical News Today, 25 May 2022, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trans-woman-cervical-cancer#is-cervical-cancer-possible. Accessed 8 Sept. 2023.