By Elizabeth Sitotombe
JANUARY is cervical cancer awareness month.
Every two minutes a woman dies from cervical cancer.
The good news is that it is preventable and curable with early detection and treatment.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally, with an estimated 604 000 new cases and 342 000 deaths in 2020 according to WHO.
About 90 percent of the new cases and deaths worldwide, in 2020, occurred in low and middle income countries.
A majority of cervical cancer is due to the human papillomavirus.
Two human papillomavirus (HPV) types are responsible for nearly 50 percent of high grade cervical cancer. HPV is mainly transmitted through sexual contact and most people are infected with HPV shortly after the onset of sexual activity.
Women living with HIV are six times more likely to develop cervical cancer as compared to those living without the virus. It takes 15-20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems and five to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems, such as those with untreated HIV infection.
In Zimbabwe, cervical cancer is the second most frequent cancer among women aged 15-49 years. According to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Related Cancers in Zimbabwe report, all women 15 years and older are at risk of developing cervical cancer.
Zimbabwe records 7 000 new cases of cancer every year, of which 60 percent are associated with HIV. Of these cases, 60 percent affect women, with cervical cancer accounting for 33,5 percent.
According to the global cancer repository, in 2018, Zimbabwe was estimated to have the fifth highest incidence rate (61,7 per 100 000 women) and fourth highest mortality rate (43 per 100 000 women) from cervical cancer in the world.
The Government of Zimbabwe has been implementing several strategies covering cancer prevention, early diagnosis, including screening, treatment and care to address the continued rising cancer burden.
Cervical cancer screening is offered for free in most Government health facilities.
Health Ambassador First Lady Dr Amai Auxillia Mnangagwa committed herself to fighting and campaigning against cervical cancer since 2017 and has put in a lot of work in raising awareness among women.
Under the First Lady’s all inclusive national empowerment programmes under which no-one is to be left behind her Angel of Hope Foundation’s mobile clinic has undertaken cancer screening outreach programmes to remote areas of the country where health facilities are not easily accessible.
Under her campaign, hundreds of women have been screened for cervical cancer and other cancers, like breast cancer.
Early detection is key to successfully treating any form of cancer. Cervical cancer does not usually exhibit any noticeable symptoms in the early stages.
Early symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- changes to vaginal discharge
- vaginal bleeding that is unusual, including during or after sex
- heavier periods than usual
- pain during sex
- pain in the lower back between hip bones or in the lower tummy
- It is important to note, however, that other conditions like endometriosis or fibroids may exhibit the same symptoms.
Advanced cervical cancer
- weight loss
- leg pain that feels like a persistent sharp or dull ache
- leakage of urine or faeces from the vagina
- blood in urine
- difficulty urinating and bowel movement
The most effective way is to begin screening at an early stage. Generally, women should be regularly screened from age 30. However, women living with HIV should be screened from age 25.
In May 2018, Zimbabwe introduced HPV vaccination into the national immunisation programme. The HPV vaccine targets the HPV types that most commonly cause cervical cancer and can cause some cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus and oropharynx.
It also protects against the HPV types that cause most genital warts. It is less effective in preventing HPV-related diseases in young women who are already sexually active. That is because it prevents the HPV before a person is exposed to it.
The HPV vaccine is given in two doses that should begin when a girl is between nine and 14 years old. It is also recommended for girls and women aged 13 through 26 years who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the vaccine series.
The HPV vaccine is safe, effective and protects against cervical cancer. WHO recommends that all girls be vaccinated with one or two doses of the HPV vaccine. This will reduce their chances of getting cervical cancer later in life.
Ladies, better be safe than sorry!
Get screened each chance you get and let’s get our young ones vaccinated too.