HPV is as Common as the Flu Virus, Says Gynaecologist
All sexually active women are at risk of being exposed to a high-risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) strain that may lead to cervical cancer. While the exposure is transient 95 per cent of the time, and the immune system will get rid of the HPV infection, not everyone is that fortunate.
Cervical cancer is the 10th most common cancer among Singaporean women — over 200 people are diagnosed with it annually. Caused by a long-lasting HPV infection, this disease kills more than 70 people locally a year.
Scary? True. There is nothing you can do? False. Cervical cancer is highly preventable.
For starters, get a HPV vaccination if you are currently between nine and 26 years old — it decreases your risk of cervical cancer by nearly 90 per cent. Further lower your risk by going for a Pap test once every three years, if you are between the ages of 25 and 29, and a HPV test once every five years if you are aged 30 to 69 years old.
“Cervical screenings (Pap test/HPV test) can detect cells that have the potential to become cancer. We call them pre-cancers. These pre-cancers can be recognised by your doctor, and be effectively treated,” shares Dr Ida Ismail-Pratt, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, who’s also a member of the Women’s Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Committee at the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS), and a consultant with the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore. She further adds that a one-time screening is not enough, even though cervical screening tools are “good tools”.
Dr Ida, who currently leads the gynaecology cancer screening and prevention programme at National University Hospital, further asserts the importance of going for regular screenings. She says: “It increases the sensitivity of the screening tools to near 100 per cent. There is a higher chance for us to actually pick up the abnormal cell or the cancer-related HPV when you go for your regular screening.”
Cervical cancer is a slow-progressing disease that takes anywhere from 10 to 30 years from infection to cancer development if left untreated or undetected. This is also why Dr Wong Wai Loong, Head and Senior Consultant of the Department of Gynaecological Oncology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, believes in regular screening — even if you “feel healthy”.
“Pre-cancer changes have no symptoms. However, when you start having symptoms, it may be too late,” shares Dr Wong, who’s also a member of Women’s Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Committee. Debunking more myths that surround cervical cancer, he says: “It is untrue that you won’t get HPV if your partner uses condoms. HPV is not only transmitted through sexual activities. It can also be transmitted through genital skin-to-skin contact.”
To prevent cervical cancer, go for regular screening — a Pap test or HPV test takes 15 minutes tops.
SCS’s clinic at Bishan offers cervical screenings at no cost for all Singaporeans and PR women. While screening services have been suspended until further notice due to the Covid-19 situation, SCS is still open for appointments to be made via bit.ly/WGCAM20ScreeningReg.
Sadly, other ‘female cancers’, such as ovarian and uterine cancer, are not that easily preventable. There are no consistently reliable screening tests to detect either cancers; however, if you experience any symptoms or feel unwell, do seek advice from a doctor as soon as possible.
“Prevention is better than cure,” says Dr Ida, quoting an oft-heard phrase, cliched though it may be. But if it’s one that saves lives, it’s a mantra worth repeating.