Namibia: Understanding HPV and Cervical Cancer

AFTER cervical cancer claimed the life of a loved one last year, 21-year-old *Irene has since educated herself about a sexually transmitted infection called the human papilloma virus.

Her aunt was diagnosed with cervical cancer in January last year.

Prior to any real knowledge she had gathered about the human papilloma virus ( HPV), she already heard about the vaccine in high school, but had not decided on getting it.

"I grew up with friends who got the vaccine at the age of 15 already," she said.

Although she heard about various female screening procedures such as the 'Pap smear' test throughout her teenage years, it was never something she concerned herself with.

However, when Irene's aunt passed away in July last year, she became curious about what led to her aunt's sudden death.

"I only heard and learnt about it [HPV] because of [my aunt's] cervical cancer," she said, "I heard it goes around [passed on], and you get warts on your genitals," she added.

It was not until April this year that she went to seek professional advice from a gynaecologist about what HPV is.

She was recommended to get the vaccine thereafter.

Prevention is better than cure

On the day she got the vaccine, Irene recalled feeling nervous.

Although the doctor explained the benefits and importance of the HPV vaccine, she did not know how her body would react to it.

"I don't like needles, so the physical pain bothered me," she said.

"After I got the shot, I had no appetite, I just got a temperature," she explained, noting that there were no major side effects.

When she approached her parents about her decision to get the vaccine, they supported her after she explained to them why it is important.

Irene has received two HPV shots so far. She will get her third and final vaccine next month.

Understanding HPV and medical screenings

Statistics from the Cancer Association of Namibia (CAN) show that between 2007 and 2017, 2 461 cervical cancer cases were recorded.

According to the association, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, with over 150 different types or strands.

CAN states that usually in younger women, this virus disappears on its own within two years.

However, certain types of HPV have been linked to a high risk or cervical cancer.

"HPV is scary," said Aina Nghitongo, a nurse at the association, adding that it can be contracted quite easily.

"Cervical cancer is not genetic. It's not like breast cancer, where there's a higher chance if it runs in the family," she added.

"HPV has different strands ,but only HPV-16 and HPV-18 cause cervical cancer; other strands commonly cause warts and herpes," she explained.

Nghitongo said HPV affects both men and women. The HPV vaccine can be given to males and females as early as at age 9.

While HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, cancer does not develop for 10 or more years after the virus is contracted.

Through regular Pap smear tests and new screening methods such as visual inspection with acidotic acid, doctors and clinicians are able to monitor cells on the cervix for any abnormalities, and treat them thereafter.

A Pap test ('Pap smear' test) is a method of cervical screening used to detect potentially pre-cancerous and cancerous processes in the cervix (opening or lower part of the uterus and womb).

It is done at a medical office or clinic on an exam table by a healthcare professional who inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to widen it so that the upper portion of the vagina and the cervix can be seen for examination, the CAN expert added.

HPV risk factors include smoking, multiple sex partners, and exposure to sexually transmitted infections.

She added that people most at risk of contracting HPV are those who have a history of previous abnormal pap smear results, and those who are HIV positive.

"The best time to give the vaccine is before you start having sex," she said.

The recommendation is to get the two-dose series between ages 9 and 14 for HIV negative minors.

Anyone who receives the vaccine above the age of 15, needs three-series doses to complete their vaccine.

Nghitongo said the second dose should be taken two months from the initial dose, and the third one six to 12 months after the second dose.

The nurse went on to say that people with HPV do not always know they are infected, and never develop health problems from it.

She reiterated that the pre-cancerous stage for women who test positive for HPV-16/HPV-18 can last for 10 years before it becomes cancer.

However, with most HPV strands, a health body's immune system is able to fight off the infection within two years.

HPV is spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact. Although in most cases the virus is passed on through vaginal and anal sex, people can also get it through oral sex.

* Not her real name

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