CERVICAL cancer is preventable, yet in 2020, an estimated 604 000 women were diagnosed worldwide and about 342 000 women died from the disease.
This is according to Cancer Association of Namibia (CAN) chief executive Rolf Hansen.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women around the world and the second most frequent cancer among women in Namibia. The prevalence is most frequent in women of the age of 15 to 45 years, Hansen said.
“January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. It is a perfect opportunity for us to raise awareness about cervical cancer, screening for cervical cancer and education on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination,” he said.
Hansen added that almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. Most of these infections are usually without symptoms.
There are many types of HPV. However, only some (HPV16 and HPV18, most commonly) are linked to cervical cancer.
In most cases, after infection occurs, the immune system clears HPV from the body.
However, in persons with persistent infection with associated high risk (HIV+ status), HPV can cause abnormal cells to develop, which go on to become cancer.
Typically, it may take 10 to 15 years for abnormal cells to turn to cancer cells.
Hansen emphasises that the goal for screening is to detect HPV infection or early cancerous changes in the cervical cells in this period, so that treatment can prevent cancer from developing.
Sometimes, cancer can be detected on screening. The advantage of detecting cancer on screening is that it is usually in the early stage when the disease has not spread. Therefore, the possibility of treatment and complete cure is much higher, he said.
He further said the HPV test and the Pap smear are the most used screening tests that can help in early detection of cervical cancer.
In Namibia, the Ministry of Health and Social Services also use the visual inspection with acetic acid test to screen for abnormal cells in the cervix. The HPV test looks for the virus that causes the cell changes leading to cervical cancer, while the Pap smear looks for early/precancerous changes in the cells that may develop into cancers in the long term, in addition to detecting some infections, Hansen added.
Recommendations for cervical cancer screening are developed by several organisations globally and for Namibia, these are the considerations in addition to the Cervical Cancer Guidelines of the health ministry.
The Cancer Association of Namibia thus recommends the following:
HIV+ women should be screened and managed by healthcare providers annually.
Age 21 – 29 years: Your first Pap test at age 21, followed by Pap testing every three years.
Age 30-65 years: If you are in this age group, it is recommended getting screened for cervical cancer as follows:
HPV test every five to 10 years (subject to HIV status)
HPV/Pap co-test every five years as a precautionary health management test (subject to HIV status)
Women older than 65 years are advised to consult a healthcare provider to learn if screening is still needed. (subject to HIV status).
If you have been screened regularly and had normal test results, your healthcare provider will probably advise you that you no longer need screening. However, if your recent test results were abnormal or you have not been screened regularly, you may need to continue screening beyond age 65.
The HPV vaccine protects against the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. HPV can cause other types of cancer in both men and women. HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat it.
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