Jade Goody’s death at home on Mother’s Day certainly put my insignificant moan into perspective. How very sad to die so young, leaving especially her two boys to deal with a such tragic loss.
She was courageous and brave throughout her remaining months of life. I take my hat off to her. Let’s hope if nothing else she has raised awareness of a cancer that is rising alarmingly. The number of women attending to have smears taken has been falling in recent years, but already, doctors have noticed a marked increase in the number of girls getting smear tests in Jade’s demographic group. Her “girl next door” appeal will have had a lot of resonance with those that grew up identifying with her.
When we talk of sexually transmitted infections, we usually think about chlamydia, herpes, HIV, gonorrrhoea and syphilis. But one sexually transmitted infection with which about 70% of sexually active people are confronted unknowingly by at some time is the human papillomavirus (HPV) an infection that is usually thrown off without lasting complications. HPV is commonly known as the genital wart virus.
I don’t think people are aware that 99.7% of all cases of cervical cancer can be shown to have resulted from The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The infection is said to be carried by one in ten girls under 16 – it is sexually transmitted and once it enters the cervix causes cell mutation which if undetected, will lead to cancer.
Two vaccines have been licensed for use in this country. The one selected for the government campaign is Cervarix. My daughter has already received one injection out of the three as they have started this year vaccinating them at school. The vaccination will offer them 70% protection against cervical cancer. Each year about 3,000 cases of cancer of the cervix is diagnosed and of these patients about 1000 women will die of the disease.
That figure equates to less than three deaths per 100,000 of the population, which is exceedingly low compared to breast or lung cancer. However, it is not just about preventing cervical cancer deaths, it is about preventing the invasive cancer itself (which can be drastic) and development of all the precancerous to high grade lesions that get picked up by smears. There are approximately 25,000 cases of high grade lesions/cervical carcinomas per year. Plus the number of abnormal smears is significantly more, probably around several hundred thousand per year. To prevent these in over 70% of all women would be an incredible achievement.
The government have decided on the cheaper drug Cervarix (made by GlaxoSmithKline) which only protects against cancer causing strains, unlike Gardasil their other option, which also protects against strains that cause genital warts. Both vaccines prevent the viral infections which can go on to cause cancer and it appears that they will only be effective if given before girls become sexually active. According to the GP and broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond, the government have chosen the wrong (cheaper) vaccine to protect against cervical cancer as it does not protect against genital warts as well. This is not good. America, Australia and most of Europe have opted for the more effective vaccine.
What is less widely known is that HPV is also responsible for penile cancer, anal cancer and 47% of cases of head, neck and mouth cancer. As no steps are being taken currently to vaccinate men, there is a danger that HPV could become a solely female problem. Dr Thomas Stuttaford who writes in The Times believes that the vaccination of boys would protect both sexes “not only from nasty below-the-belt cancers but from some unpleasant tumours above the collar”. He also points out that vaccinating boys would probably reduce the risk of men later passing on HPV to their sexual partner.
So, it seems we have a long way to go in the campaign to improve awareness and to protect our children (and ourselves). But one thing we can do to avoid the spread of this infection is to make sure everybody knows that it’s always best to wear a condom.