Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV) that is passed on through sexual activity.
The virus can also be passed on from an infected person to an uninfected person, through oral sex.
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Other causes of the cancer include starting sex early, particularly during the teenage years, having multiple sexual partners and multiple pregnancies.
Apart from these any girl or woman who has ever had sex is also at risk of getting cervical cancer.
Although the cancer often affects women who are close to the end of their reproductive years which is between 40 and 50 years, the changes in the body that may lead to the cancer can start early even during adolescence.
This is because cervical cancer usually takes 20 years or more to develop.
In Ghana current estimates indicate that on the average, 3,038 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer while 2,006 of the number die from it every year.
The cancer is also ranked as the first most frequently reported cancer among women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the country followed by breast cancer and then liver cancer.
Cervical Cancer is the type of cancer which affects the lower part of the uterus or womb that connects to the vagina and it occurs when the cells at the opening of the womb become abnormal and start to grow out of control.
According to medical experts, cells of a body tissue divide and produce more cells only when the body needs them and once this process occurs orderly it continues to keep the body healthy.
On the other hand, a cancer develops when cells of a body tissue become abnormal and divide without control or order and even invade other tissues.
The HPV does not produce symptoms when one has the infection, so there is no way of telling whether it is present in a person’s body or not unless a test is conducted to ascertain that the cancer is indeed present.
As part of efforts to check the spread of the disease, the Ministry of Health (MOH), in collaboration with the Ghana Health Service (GHS) and the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) on Monday began vaccinating schoolgirls in 13 districts of the Northern and Central regions against the HPV.
According to the National Programme Manager for the EPI, Dr Kwadwo Odei Antwi-Agyei, the idea behind vaccinating girls against the virus, was to protect them before their first sexual contact.
Dr Antwi-Agyei explained that the vaccine could prevent cervical cancer in females if it was given before they were exposed to the virus, since the HPV is easily acquired, even with only one sexual partner.
“Therefore, it is important to get the HPV vaccine before any sexual contact takes place as the response to the vaccine is better at this age rather than at older ages and also once a girl or woman has been infected with the virus, the vaccine might not work at all,” he added.
Dr Antwi-Agyei explained that HPV vaccine, which is called Gardasil, would be given in the form of an injection on the left upper arm and would be administered in three doses over a period of six months.
He said at the moment the GHS had in stock 64,000 Gardasil, which would be used to vaccinate 32,000 schoolchildren in primary four and five between the ages of nine and 11 for the first and second rounds of the campaign.
Dr Antwi-Agyei added that 32,000 more doses would be obtained for the third round of the vaccinating process later by which time the GHS and EPI would have gathered enough information for the exercise to be introduced nationwide.
He explained that the Northern and Central regions were chosen for the vaccination exercise, which is on a pilot basis, because surveys had revealed that girls in the northern part of the country delayed their first sexual activity while in the Central Region, the teenage pregnancy rate was high, which indicated that girls there engaged in sex early.
“That is why they need to be vaccinated early to protect them,” he added.
He noted that to ensure complete protection against the virus the girls would have to be given all three doses of the vaccine to make vaccination effective.
Dr Antwi-Agyei said the only way cervical cancer could be prevented was abstaining from early sex, avoiding multiple sexual partners, vaccinating against the HPV and undergoing screening.
He added that the HPV vaccine could not prevent HIV&AIDS and pregnancies.
It is therefore important that all parents in the selected districts ensure that they make their children available for the vaccination in the schools because it would protect them from cervical cancer later in life.
Story by Eugenia Adjei-Mensah