This week has ushered in another historic moment for women’s health, as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have announced that they have designated cancer centres to work towards the reduction and possible elimination of certain HPV (Human Papillomavirus)-related cancers.

Breast and cervical cancer are the two types of cancer women are most susceptible to. This means that approximately 530 000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer around the world each year, with Sub-Saharan Africa reporting the highest incidence rates in the world. As a result, it is a leading cause of death for women in the Sub-Saharan region.

Global health organisations are therefore working towards stymieing the burden of cervical cancer on women (and in some cases, men). Medical director of MSD South Africa, Khanyi Mzolo, is optimistic about this potential major medical breakthrough. ‘This is an important step towards achieving the vision of a world where the number of women and men affected by certain HPV-related cancers is greatly reduced. We are committed to working with governments and other partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to ensure that this goal becomes a reality,’ says Khanyi.

This bold new plan of eliminating HPV-related cancers is still in its infancy. While the WHO, ACS, and the NCI make progress towards its success, it is crucial that the healthcare sector also prioritises HPV-related cancer prevention through screening, early treatment, infrastructure strengthening, surveillance and monitoring. Women who don’t have access to online health resources must also be educated.

So, in the name of health education, here are a six  important things every woman should know about HPV:

  1. There are over 190 different types of HPV, and 40 of them affect the anogenital area.
  2. HPV is one of the most common STIs and is easily spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact. It can be passed through vaginal sex, anal, or oral sex, and can even be transmitted while kissing, especially French kissing.
  3. Overall, more than 150 known strains of HPV exist. Most strains clear up on their own, but types 16 and 18 cause cell changes that are precursors to cancer. Although HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, the virus can also cause cancer of the vagina, mouth, and throat in women.
  4. According to MSD South Africa, HPV16 and 18 are the most common genotypes in cervical cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although HPV16 and 18 are associated with approximately 70% of cervical cancer cases, the various HPV genotypes also contribute to penile cancers, anal cancers, vulvar and vaginal cancers as well as genital warts (HPV6 and 11).
  5. HPV can cause genital warts, dysplasia (abnormal cells that can lead to cancer), and cancer itself. While there’s no treatment for the virus, there are treatments for some of the health problems it can lead to, including genital warts and cervical pre-cancer.
  6. Guidelines state that women aged 21 to 29 should be administered a Pap test every three years. Women can get tested for cervical cancer as early as 21 years.

For more information on HPV, visit the MSD website here.