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Road to ending HPV cancer epidemic; Awareness, vaccination

BY: Emmanuel Akwasi Marfo & Felix Amoah-Sakyi Sagoe

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) globally. It causes health problems such as warts, cervical cancers, and other cancers of the mouth, throat and genitals.

Ghana is among the countries with the highest prevalence of HPV-related cancer and related deaths.

For instance, 3151 cervical cancers cases and 2119 deaths occur among women every year.

HPV cancers are preventable. However, a 2021 study by Appiah and colleagues from Valley View University showed low awareness of HPV cancer prevention strategies among Ghanaians.

Research shows that despite low awareness of HPV and its vaccines in low-resource countries, there is a high willingness to get vaccines when people are made aware.

HPV

HPV spreads through sexual intercourse or coming into contact with infected skin. This can occur through oral, vaginal, and anal sex.

There are several strains of HPV viruses. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are known to mostly cause cancers, while HPV 6 and HPV 11 cause about 90 per cent of genital warts.

Depending on the type of strain one gets infected with, they may or may not have any physical signs and symptoms.

In most cancer-linked HPV strains, there are no signs of infection. That is not to say one cannot be infected with more than one HPV strain.

Thus, an individual can be infected with both cancer-linked and other HPV strains concurrently.

Like other STIs, abstinence from sexual practices prevents HPV infection. However, such an approach is to pretend that humans are not sexual beings.

Condoms

While condoms can offer some protection against HPV, it is not always 100 per cent because the HPV virus can hide in the skin, pubic hairs, or areas uncovered by the condom and transmitted to the partner during sexual intercourse.

Currently, the best strategy to prevent HPV-related cancers is vaccination. HPV vaccines are about 99 per cent effective and very safe.

Since its introduction in 2006, they have drastically reduced the incidence of HPV cancers in most developed countries. According to research, vaccines work best before engaging in sexual activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that HPV vaccines be given to all adolescents before sexual debut.

Research

Research also shows that older age groups may still benefit from the vaccines depending on the sexual activities.

The HPV vaccine has also had its fair share of opposition from anti-vaxxers, resulting in several public misconceptions.

It is salient to demystify those beliefs about HPV vaccines as they can discourage people from receiving the vaccines.

First, scientific evidence shows that HPV vaccines are safe with no life-threatening side effects.

They do not cause barrenness, nor do they make adolescents sexually conspicuous. It is also false that one can get complete immunity against HPV from an initial infection.

Like most viral infections such as COVID-19, HPV infection does not provide sufficient immunity to protect against future infections.

Receiving HPV vaccines during adolescence is not too early, as immunisation against most vaccine-preventable diseases occurs in early childhood without any problems.

It is important to know that HPV vaccines do not protect against human immunodeficiency virus and other STIs.

Finally, the HPV vaccine does not offer birth control.

At this point, we believe that you may be asking about where to get HPV vaccines for your kids or yourself.

Available

Although HPV vaccines are not currently part of the national routine vaccine programmes, they are available in some public hospitals, including the Ridge Hospital in Accra and South Suntreso Government Hospital in Kumasi.

HPV vaccines may also be available in some private hospitals across the country.

With the hope that our government provides a national HPV vaccine programme that is accessible and affordable to all, we call on parents and guardians to consider self-funded HPV vaccination for their children.

Such initiatives can eradicate HPV viral infection and end the HPV-related cancer endemic.

The writers are Emmanuel Akwasi Marfo & Felix Amoah-Sakyi Sagoe; Research Assistant, Applied Immunisation Research Programme, Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Canada and Registered General Nurse, Birmingham, UK, respectively