Prevention better than Cure

Bangkok Post
Thailand

New campaign advocates vaccinating pre-teens against the virus that causes cervical cancer

By: KANOKPORN CHANASONGKRAM
Published: 19/06/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

A nurse at Maharaj Nakorn Chiang Mai Hospital’s gynecological ward, Watana Naktorn cared for cervical cancer patients but never thought that she would fall prey to it herself. When she was 52, a Pap test found that she was afflicted with the disease at an early stage and three years of great suffering and a series of treatments followed in fighting the cancer.

”With my healthcare background, I thought I knew well how to protect myself from it. But 10 years ago, we didn’t know that it was caused by a virus,” she said. The retired nurse, now 63, has the disease under control and doesn’t want her two daughters to be the next victims of the second most common cancer among women.

Identifying the human papillomavirus (HPV) as the culprit led to the development of preventive vaccines against sexually transmitted strains that cause most cervical cancers. Vaccination, however, is most effective when given before becoming sexually active, and so it has been recommended for pre-teenagers. Nevertheless, Watana encouraged her daughters, aged 28 and 30 and both single, to get vaccinated against HPV earlier this year. ”If my daughters get married and have children, I will definitely get my granddaughters vaccinated too,” she added.

Watana shared her experience of having the cancer at the launch of the ”Cervical Cancer is Preventable” campaign, initiated by the Thai Gynecologic Cancer Society and the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of Thailand. Both medical societies advocate vaccination, if affordable, and the general recommendation is that girls between the ages of 11 and 12 should be immunised against HPV.

Dr Rudiwilai Samakoses, director of Phramongkutklao Hospital’s Department of Pediatrics said, ”Booster doses of certain vaccines are given to children at the age of 11 to 12. So this is a good time for a HPV vaccination too. In addition, we have to prepare girls for the next stage of their lives. They need to know about how the female body will change, why they will menstruate, and it’s also very important is to give them sex education, including a basic knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases.”

With HPV infection as the most common form of sexually transmitted infections, the pediatrician noted that teens need to know that beginning sexual activity before the age of 16 puts them at four times higher risk of HPV infection than after 16.

Young women promoting the 
‘‘Cervical Cancer Is Preventable’’ campaign.

”Immature cervical cells seem to be more susceptible to the virus and so delaying sexual activity reduces the risk of cervical cancer. Due to sex education, there’s an awareness of this among Western teens whereas culturally Thais don’t like to talk about sex, and so our teens are learning by themselves and perhaps having sex at a younger age, thereby increasing their risk of getting the cancer,” she said.

The only way to totally prevent HPV is to abstain from all sexual activity, not just intercourse. The virus can spread through non-penetrative sexual contact. A healthy body can normally clear away the virus, and there will be no symptoms or health problems. If the virus doesn’t go away, it can make cervical cells become abnormal, and over the course of 10 to 15 years, develop into a cancer.

PG

Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.