Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most people know it as the genital warts virus, but certain types of this virus are also responsible for causing cancer of the cervix, anus, penis, vulva and vagina. It can also cause cancer in the throat and mouth.
Every year, approximately 4 248 women die from cervical cancer in South Africa alone. It is responsible for most female cancer-related deaths in the country and it is the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 15 to 44-years-old.
Research finds that HPV is playing an ever-increasing role in the incidents of throat and head, as well as anogenital cancers.
Anal cancer is rare with only an average worldwide incidence of 1 per 100 000, but is reported to be increasing in more developed urban areas. There are an estimated 27 000 new cases every year around the world.
Most healthcare practitioners can quickly identify HPV that manifests as genital warts. Theses warts can vary in size and can be flat or raised and rough or hard to the touch. They can seem like a cauliflower in appearance. However, many cases of HPV do not manifest in physical symptoms at all. Many HPV carriers are asymptomatic.
There is no cure for HPV, but vaccines for certain types are available. South Africa started administering vaccines against some of the more important types of HPV in many schools as from 2014.
People who are living with HIV and are not being treated for it can have weaker immune systems. This can make these individuals even more vulnerable to HPV and its effects.
Most sexually active people will be exposed to HPV some time in their lives. HPV vaccines are safe and effective and highly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for young girls aged 11 and up as it is important to vaccinate before these girls become sexually active. Condoms can be a deterrent for HPV, but anywhere that skin touches skin can allow for an infection of HPV, if one of the persons involved has the virus.
Having a “catch-up” vaccine is also recommended by the CDC for males and females around the ages of 21 and 26, and gay or bisexual men of the same age are also recommended to get vaccinated.
HPV vaccines for adolescent girls is free at public clinics in South Africa but vaccines for adults are not free, however, they can be sourced at most commercial pharmacies.