By: Carly Gasca
As people around the world celebrate women’s achievements during International Women’s Day on March 8th, it is important to pause and remember that progress still needs to be made in improving the health of women worldwide. Despite the advancements that women have experienced in many areas, women’s health issues still need to be tackled around the globe. One such health issue involves the Human papillomavirus (HPV) and the diseases it can cause in women, most notably cervical cancer.
Genital HPV can be described as a silent attacker, which makes this sexually transmitted infection extremely common. HPV is so common that at least 50% of all sexually active individuals will harbor the infection at some point in their lives, but most people won’t even realize it. HPV infections are generally free of symptoms, and the body’s immune system is capable of eliminating 90% of all HPV cases within two years of infection. However, the other 10% of high-risk HPV cases that remain in the body have the potential to develop into cancers years later. Genital HPV is estimated to cause nearly 100% of cervical cancer cases.
Cervical cancer is a major killer of women worldwide, claiming the lives of over 250,000 women every year. There is a striking disparity in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths between high- and low-income populations. The disease burden of cervical cancer rests disproportionately on countries in developing parts of the world. The alarming fact that nearly 90% of cervical cancer deaths occur in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean is due to the lack of HPV prevention and screening methods in these regions.
Preventative measures such as vaccination against HPV and routine Pap tests are not readily available in poorer countries. Two vaccines that protect against 70% of the HPVs responsible for cervical cancer have been approved for use in many countries throughout the world. The current challenge is to make sure that HPV vaccination is implemented into the national immunization programs of countries with vulnerable populations. One of the next major achievements for women should be ensuring that HPV vaccination and cervical cancer screening is available at the global level.
Genital HPV infections and cervical cancer may be silent and widespread, but we now have the necessary tools to prevent both of these diseases in women worldwide. Effective cervical cancer prevention through the use of HPV vaccination and screening will save the lives of thousands of women each year. By protecting and promoting their health, the lives of women around the world will continue to improve in the coming years. We can do it!
Carly Gasca is the advocacy and communications intern for the Vaccine Advocacy and Education Program of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.