In light of World Cancer Day, which was February 4th, UNAIDS is calling for all HIV-positive women to have access to educational materials on human papillomavirus (HPV)—a virus that is known to cause most cases of cervical cancer—as well as access to cervical cancer screening, and, if needed, treatment.
According to an official press release
, a staggering 500,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and about half of them die from the disease. The majority of the women who die from the disease—9 out of 10—reside in low- and middle-income countries. Without increased efforts to improve cervical cancer-related prevention, screening, and treatment, these numbers are estimated to double by 2035.
According to the press release, “Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women living in low- and middle-income countries, and women living with HIV are particularly affected.” The chances that women living with HIV will develop cervical cancer are fivefold over those who do not have the virus. These numbers further stress the need for cervical cancer screening and treatment in this population.
Luckily, the majority of cervical cancer cases that are caused by HPV are preventable “with regular screening
tests and follow-up,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pap smears and HPV tests are the two screening tests that are available to either detect the disease early on so that it can be treated, or to prevent it altogether. The CDC recommends that every woman ages 21 to 65 visit their doctor to receive a Pap smear, which has been designed to detect any changes in the cells found on the cervix that may progress into cervical cancer if left untreated.
In addition, there is a vaccine available that protects against the HPV types that are known to cause cervical cancer. However, recently cancer specialists from the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have reminded the public that cervical cancer screening
is still needed regardless of whether or not an individual has received the HPV vaccine; if cervical cancer is caught early on, it can be treated.
—both men and women—will become infected with at least one HPV type in their lifetime, according to the CDC. A possible explanation for this may lie within the fact that most HPV infections are asymptomatic, and so individuals may unknowingly pass the infection on to their sexual partners. When it comes to HPV, women who have healthy immune systems are able to “clear the infection over time.” However, women who are immunocompromised, such as those living with HIV, are unable to fight the infection so easily, and the infection can result in a number of complications. For one, it has been discovered that HPV infection can work to significantly increase the risk of transmitting HIV to others.
When it comes to slashing the death toll caused by cervical cancer, “investments need to be made in health education, HPV vaccination for adolescent girls, screening together with counseling and information, and access to treatment and care when needed.”
According to UNAIDS, the interplay between HPV and HIV “offers significant opportunities” when it comes to efforts to lessen the impact of both viruses that manage to plague a number of lives and account for many deaths. HIV programmes, such as The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), could be key players in increasing access to prevention, screening, and treatment of cervical cancer. A dedicated, collaborative effort is needed to fight cervical cancer and timely access to screening is an important step in that direction. With an “integrative approach,” a number of women’s lives can potentially be saved.
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