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Doctors vouch for vaccination to stave off cervical cancer

Around 800,000 girls will receive the HPV vaccine annually in the country’s routine immunisation programme, launched by Health CS Sicily Karuiki in October, 2019/PHOTO – Courtesy of GAVI.org

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 6 – Detecting and removing abnormal cervical cells can prevent cervical cancer. Screening is an effective method for detecting abnormal cells in the cervix.

The results of the initial test also referred to as a pap smear test, are used to provide healthcare practitioners with an accurate measure of the health of the cervix – the entrance to the womb or uterus.

Regular check-ups are recommended for all women aged over 25. The test looks for changes in the cells of the cervix.

Dr. Paul Kamau Koigi, Consultant Obstetrician & Gynecologist at The Nairobi Hospital said that this isn’t a test for cancer, but it can help to detect abnormal cells that could lead to serious problems like cervical cancer. “Symptoms may not be experienced beforehand until the condition is at an advanced stage,” he explained.

Abnormal cells are not usually cancerous, especially if you have regular screenings. However, if abnormal cells are noticed at a screening they can be closely observed and/or treated to prevent cancer from developing.

“Regular screening has been proved to reduce the risk of advanced cancer by 90% on average for women aged 35-64,” wrote Dr. Koigi.

During the month of January, 2020, The Nairobi Hospital has been working to create awareness for Cervical Cancer.

Launch of the HPV vaccination into the routine immunization schedule in Kisumu County/PHOTO – Courtesy of GAVI.org

A report by the hospital said: “Cancer of the cervix is the most common cancer among women in Eastern and Central Africa. In Kenya, it is the most common cancer among women of reproductive age. In 2018, 569,847 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer globally, with 5,250 being in Kenya alone. In the same year, 3,286 women died from cervical cancer (9 women a day!), making it the leading local cause of cancer mortality. Despite national policies and drives to screen, diagnose and treat, the uptake of screening for cervical cancer remains dismally low (less than 20%) and the burden of disease unacceptably high.”

“The most significant risk factor for cancer of the cervix is sexually-transmitted Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection. Out of the numerous types of HPV, types 16 and 18 confer the highest risk of developing cervical cancer and are responsible for 70% of this diabolical condition,” wrote Dr. Koigi.

“Early sexual debut, having multiple sexual partners, having a partner with multiple sexual partners, co-infection with other sexually transmitted infections, smoking and immunodeficiency enhance the risk of persistent HPV infection. Low socioeconomic status impedes access to screening and care,” expounded the doctor.

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By the age of 50 years, up to 80% of women contract genital HPV infection. Over 80% of these resolve within 3 years if the immune system is competent. Among those with persistent infection, HPV causes abnormal cell division. This gradually results in distortion of the cervix.

Dr Koigi said that this triggers the common symptoms of cervical cancer, including abnormal vaginal bleeding (particularly after intercourse). vaginal discomfort, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, pelvic, back or leg pain, fatigue, anorexia, weight loss and leg swelling. More severe symptoms occur at advanced stages, such as painful urination, coughing up blood, chest and bone pain.

Any sexually active woman is eligible for cervical cancer screening. The methods available in Kenya include HPV testing, visual inspection with acetic acid and Lugol’s Iodine, a pap smear test and colposcopy – a medical diagnostic procedure to examine an illuminated, magnified view of the cervix as well as the vagina and vulva.

Girls proudly show of their vaccination cards after they were vaccinated against cervical cancer in Eastern Kenya/PHOTO – Courtesy of GAVI.org

Following a successful pilot in Kitui County, Kenya joined 10 African and 115 global countries offering HPV vaccination.

The aim is to offer it to 800,000 10-year-old girls annually in two doses six months apart. By offering it at this age, it will confer protection before sexual debut. By placing it in the national vaccination schedule, it should reach a high number of Kenyans for free.

Within this initiative lies the potential to reduce the burden of cervical cancer by up to 80%. Given that similar declines have been observed in the burdens of other deadly diseases thanks to the widespread provision of effective vaccines for them, it would be imprudent and unethical to deny Kenyans this life-saving intervention.

Dr. Koigi concluded that it is now possible for Kenyans to come together to prevent cancer of the cervix through vaccination.

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