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Regular cervical cancer screening, vaccination save lives

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Bobby Ramakant, Citizen News Service (CNS)

Cervical cancer, a preventable cancer, continues to be the second-most-common cancer among women globally. Scientists and researchers from around the world brainstormed in sessions on cervical cancer management and control at the International Conference on "Emerging Frontiers and Challenges in Management and Control of STIs and HIV" organized by National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (NIRRH), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and MGM Institute of Health Sciences.

Dr Joel Palefsky, Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, US, said that although cervical cancer incidence has come down in India despite absence of any big cancer-prevention efforts in India yet it continues to be a leading form of cancer for women (breast cancer has the highest rates among women followed closely by cervical cancer).

Dr Neeta Singh, Professor and Head of Department of Biochemistry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said 528,000 cases of cervical cancer occur globally, out of which 132,082 are in India. 273,500 women die of cervical cancer globally every year, out of which 74,118 deaths occurred in India.

Dr Smita Joshi, Associate Professor, Department of Preventive Oncology, Hirabai Cowasji Jehangir Medical Research Institute, Pune, said that almost 85% of cervical-cancer deaths occur in countries where there is a lack of population-based cervical cancer-screening programmes for all eligible 30- to 50-year-old women. Almost 200 women died every day due to cervical cancer in India, which is essentially preventable.

Dr Neeta Singh said that majority of the people who have HPV infection will clear the virus in 1-2 years and do not develop cervical cancer. Human body's immune system usually eliminates the HPV infection on its own. Cervical HPV infection usually becomes undetectable within 2 years in 90% of women. She cautioned that we need to watch out for women where HPV infection persists and can cause a variety of serious health problems.

Health problems that can be caused by HPV include: genital warts; cervical cancer (cancer on a woman's cervix); and cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus; and a type of head-and-neck cancer called oropharyngeal cancer.

Dr Singh added that lifetime risk to ever contract HPV infection is 80% so it is better to get screened regularly. She said that even if the person has been vaccinated it is recommended to go for regular screening as there are a number of HPV strains.

Dr Paelfsky said that in a study, 92% tested positive for HPV. Out of these HPV positive tissues, 79.6% were HPV 16 or HPV 18. Remaining most common types of HPV were: 45, 73, 31, 56, 52, 58, 59, 33, 68, 51, 35, 26 and 39.

Dr Palefsky said that HPV infection sets in about 5cm inside the anal canal. Mean age for development of anal cancer is 62 and for cervical cancer is 49 as progression of anal cancer is slow. Anal cancer rates in a North American AIDS Cohort Collaboration on Research and Development (1996-2007) were no less alarming: 131 per 100 thousand among HIV-infected men who have sex with men (MSM), 36 per 100 thousand among men who have sex with women, and 30 per 100 thousand among women. Just like cervical cancer, anal cancers are also potentially preventable.

In a study on anal HPV infection in Indian HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) at two sites in India, Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore and Humsafar Trust Mumbai, rates had set the alarm bells ringing. 90% HPV infection was reported from CMC Vellore site and 95% HPV infection among study participants at Humsafar Trust Mumbai. In CMC Vellore those HIV positive MSM who participated in the study were more likely to be married and elder than the cohort in Mumbai (which was less likely to be married and younger in age).

Dr Palefsky said that quadrivalent vaccine is effective in preventing HPV infection and cancers. It is effective against the following HPV types: 6, 11, 16, and 18, among others.

In USA, this vaccine is approved for routine use to prevent genital warts; vulvar, vaginal, cervical, and anal cancers in girls and women aged 9-26 years; and genital warts and anal cancer in boys and men aged 9-21 years and in immunocompromised or HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) aged 9-26 years.

Dr Palefsky argued that current vaccines may reduce cervical cancer by up to 70%, and newer vaccines may further reduce rates by more than 90%. HPV vaccines have an excellent safety record with no evidence of any serious adverse events attributed to it, said Dr Palefsky.

Dr Palefsky recommended rolling out HPV vaccination in India. School-based approach is good as trying to vaccinate young girls outside of schools will be extremely challenging. In USA, one-third of young girls get vaccinated in schools. School-based roll-out may help to reach out to young girls and boys to prevent them from HPV-related cancers and other complications later in life.

Dr Balaiah Donta, who is a senior scientist at National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (NIRRH), an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) institute, and also one of the organizing secretaries of this conference, said a very small percentage of women undergo pap-smear screening due to lack of awareness and due to deep-rooted patriarchy, as men continue to play a key role in women's health-seeking behaviour. Dr Smita Joshi added that according to a study, less than 10% women in India access cervical cancer-prevention services. Unless we improve the cervical cancer screening in our country, its rates are unlikely to decline in our country.

Dr Palefsky argued that HPV vaccination is thus the best approach to prevention of HPV-related cancers in India because current approaches to cervical cancer control in India are not working well enough. HPV vaccines are safe and immunogenic in HIV-infected men and women too.

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