Understanding HPV infections and cervical cancer

It is important, though, that students and the population at large be made aware of the facts regarding HPV infections and cervical cancer.
It is important, though, that students and the population at large be made aware of the facts regarding HPV infections and cervical cancer. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

The Ministry of Health (MOH) announced recently that current and future cohorts of Secondary 1 female students can opt in to receive free human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations to reduce their risk of getting cervical cancer (Free cervical cancer vaccine for Sec 1 girls, March 7).

This is certainly a positive move designed to help reduce the incidence of cervical cancer among women in the long term.

It is important, though, that students and the population at large be made aware of the facts regarding HPV infections and cervical cancer.

There are many serotypes of HPV. Some of these, transmitted through sexual contact, are known to cause cervical cancer.

The present vaccine used helps to protect against 70 per cent of the HPV serotypes associated with cervical cancer, and not 100 per cent of them.

The HPV vaccination does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Condoms offer less protection against STIs that are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact (such as herpes, syphilis, chancroid, HPV), as there are areas of the external genitalia that are infected but are not covered by the condom.

As these cancer-causing serotypes are sexually transmitted, it follows that individuals who have not engaged in sexual contact will not be exposed to the risk of cervical cancer associated with HPV infections.

These vaccines are most effective when given to individuals who are between nine and 26 years of age, and have not initiated sexual contact.

Even after the HPV vaccination, women should have Pap smears done at the recommended intervals, after sexual intercourse has been initiated.

They should remember that about 30 per cent of the cervical cancer-causing HPV strains are not covered by the present vaccine.

This HPV vaccination programme presents an excellent opportunity for sexuality education. It is an opportunity not to be missed by parents and schools.

John Hui Keem Peng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'Understanding HPV infections and cervical cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe