January is Cervical Cancer awareness month and ELLE is here to answer all your queries about the HPV Infection and its vaccine. HPV infection is a viral infection that causes warts on the genital area and the surrounding skin. With more than 100 varieties of human papilloma virus (HPV), the infection can also cause different types of cancer. There are mainly six types of cancer that can be caused by an HPV infection which are namely anal cancer, cervical cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, penile cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer. While it is a scary thought that we share a world with these minute creatures that can cause deadly diseases such as cancer, there is a preventive measure that can help us navigate this and live a healthy life, the HPV vaccine.
The key action to keep in mind here is screening, the goal of which is to find precancerous cervical cell changes. As it is with most diseases, early detection is important . By the time symptoms appear, treatment becomes more difficult.
According to NIH’s website, HPV vaccine protects against infection from nine HPV types, including the seven types that cause most HPV-related cancers and the two low-risk types that cause most genital warts. Recommended for girls and boys at the age of 11 or 12, the vaccine can be started as early as age 9. ELLE spoke to the Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI) and gained insight on the best ways to prevent the infection.
ELLE: Why do you think the conversation around cervical cancer is still so limited? What are some of the measures people can take to prevent cervical cancer or at least be protected from it?
(FOGSI): HPV is the most common infection in our country, with almost four out of five women testing positive for it. The key to preventing cervical cancer lies in administering the HPV vaccine before women become sexually active. By targeting 90% of the population before they engage in sexual activity, we can potentially eliminate cervical cancer by 2030. The goal is to achieve less than 4 cases per 100,000 women in any given population. The slogan for this initiative is “97.90,” signifying a 90% vaccination rate in the primary target group of 9 to 14 years old. If this goal is met, the vaccine’s effectiveness is estimated to be 100%. Additionally, secondary measures include screening, with 90% of those detected receiving appropriate treatment.
ELLE: What is the recommended course for people who are sexually active?
(FOGSI): This pertains to the sexually active population. Through screening, individuals can ascertain their current status and vaccination needs. In the case of sexually active women, screening helps in preventing potential future effects. Even if they have been exposed to a specific HPV type, testing negative for HPV 16 and 18 may still prompt vaccination. Therefore, screening for HPV, detecting pre-existing infections, and, if the results are negative, providing protection for several months remain crucial aspects of healthcare for sexually active individuals.
ELLE: Do you think information about cervical cancer should be part of sex education in schools? Is this currently in action?
(FOGSI): We believe that incorporating sex education into school curricula is highly beneficial. We have implemented sex education activities in various schools, and the response has been positive. Providing this information in schools is preferable to individuals seeking it from unreliable sources. Healthcare providers, particularly doctors, play a crucial role in delivering this education. Additionally, discussing topics such as HPV vaccines and preventive measures as a sequel to sex education can have a lasting impact.
ELLE: What are some of the things often misunderstood about cervical cancer?
(FOGSI): Cervical cancer does not develop rapidly; rather, it undergoes a gradual transformation that spans approximately 12 to 15 years, progressing from normal tissue to inflammation, then to dysplasia. Subsequently, the patient may develop pre-cancerous lesions before advancing to micro-invasive and invasive stages, where the suffering intensifies. The key to prevention lies in identifying the plastic stage early, preventing the progression to cancerous lesions and addressing invasive cancer at its early stages. In conclusion, early diagnosis and intervention can either cure cervical cancer or prevent its occurrence.
ELLE: What kind of lifestyle puts a person more at risk for cervical cancer?
(FOGSI): Individuals who are immunocompromised, including those with HIV, are more susceptible to certain cancers due to their weakened immune systems. The incidence of these cancers tends to be higher in such populations. Additionally, engaging in certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking, initiating sexual activities at an early age, having multiple sexual partners, and contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), can increase the likelihood of developing cervical cancer.