With September being cervical cancer awareness month, founder of “Dance for a Cure” Angela Ferguson continues her efforts to break the barriers of silence around what is, effectively, a preventable cancer.     

Although cervical cancer is a preventable disease, over 4 200 South African women die from this devastating disease every year.  Unbelievably, cervical cancer – a largely preventable cancer – remains the most common female cancer in women aged 15 – 44 years.

“It is incredibly difficult to reconcile these two facts in my head,” says Angela Ferguson, who founded “Dance for a Cure“ to create awareness about cervical cancer in memory of her friend Sharon Humphrey, who lost her battle against cervical cancer just as the vaccine was launched in South Africa in 2007. “Despite the prevalence of cervical cancer in South Africa, awareness of the disease remains very low. And despite the fact that we possess the means to prevent it, hardly anyone seems aware of the importance of vaccinating,” says Ferguson.

Her disbelief is well founded.

These are the facts:

1)     Almost 100 % of cervical cancers are caused by infection with the human

papillomavirus, or HPV, with the 70 % of those attributable specifically to HPV subtypes 16 and 18.

2) Thanks to Nobel Award-winning research that identified these two strains of HPV, two global pharmaceutical companies have developed effective vaccines that act against these strains, preventing infection from both HPV-16 and HPV-18.

3) Provided that the full course of the vaccine is administered prior to exposure to the virus, efficacy is estimated to be between 98 % and 100 %.

To date, over 58 countries around the world – including South Africa – have included the HPV vaccine in their national immunisation programmes.

The silent virus

Ask any teenage girl if she knows what HPV is, and you’re likely to be met with confusion. This despite the fact that HPV is one of the most common viruses on the planet, so much so that the lifetime risk of exposure and infection is as high as 80 %.

Add to this, the fact that genital HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact,and then compound that with the information that physical barriers such as the condom do not prevent 100 % of contact , and you begin to understand why it is so crucial that we raise awareness levels among our population. Unfortunately, Africa is also thought to have the highest incidence of high-risk HPV, at an astounding 22 %.

Johannesburg-based gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr. Trudy Smith, a staunch proponent of the HPV vaccine, adds that one of the primary reasons HPV is so prevalent – and thus so potentially harmful – is because it is a ‘silent virus’:

“HPV is a silent virus, not only because it can lie dormant for so long that you may be completely unaware that you have the virus and thus pass it unwittingly to someone else; but also because most people will clear the infection spontaneously, and in those that don’t, infection doesn’t always result in visible symptoms until it is too late.”

In fact, there are no outward symptoms of the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer, and often symptoms only appear once the cancer has invaded nearby tissue. These include abnormal bleeding and/or discharge, and discomfort during sexual intercourse. Unfortunately, because these symptoms are not exclusive to cervical cancer, they are all too often overlooked.

 Early vaccination plus regular screening

“This is why annual pap smears are so important – they detect the abnormal cells that indicate the presence of HPV, which can then be monitored to check if it is progressing,” says Smith. She adds, too, that pre-cancerous lesions in the cervix can be treated. “And while there is no cure for cervical cancer, the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the prognosis.” Worldwide, mortality rates for cervical cancer are estimated at around 50.3%.

 Ferguson has first-hand experience of the devastation that cervical cancer brings. Her close friend Sharon Humphrey was diagnosed in 2006 and tragically died just a year later. “The vaccine hadn’t been developed in time to save Sharon, but I have hope that it can save thousands of other women,” she says. It is the reason she launched “Dance for a Cure“ in 2007, which to date has helped raise funds to vaccinate over 3 450 girls against HPV.

“It can’t bring Sharon back to us, but these vaccinations are actively saving the lives of thousands of girls, preventing other families from experiencing the heartbreak of losing a mother, sister, daughter or friend,” she says.

Breaking the silence

Unfortunately, however, both Smith and Ferguson agree that cervical cancer-causing HPV is silent in one other crucial manner: no one is really talking about it, and because no one talks about the virus or the cancer, no one is talking about the vaccination. “I don’t know why the awareness levels are so low, but whatever the reason, it is time to start talking about HPV, cervical cancer and how we can prevent it,” says Ferguson.

“I believe that the primary reason the vaccination rates are so low, is that we in South Africa don’t understand the risk we take – the risk we are making our children take – when we don’t vaccinate. “There is absolutely no excuse for the thousands of lives that are destroyed by this virus every year. No woman should have to die from cervical cancer when we know that it can be prevented.”

For more information, go to http://www.hpv.co.za

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