The high rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and poor reproductive and sexual health in the South African population is directly linked to an alarming increase in the diagnosis of certain types of cancer. Cervical cancer, for instance, which is caused by specific strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), is a major public health concern for women in South Africa but cervical cancer isn’t the only concern.
HIV, HPV and Hepatitis B & C are all preventable epidemics which are naturally linked to weakened health systems and an increased risk of cancers such as cervical, mouth, throat and anal cancers.
Cervical cancer, in particular, is avoidable, yet it is still the second most frequent disease in women and the major cause of cancer deaths among women in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also one of the most prevalent malignancies among HIV-positive women.
Preventable STIs that increase cancer risk
Infectious pathogens such as helicobacter pylori, human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, and Epstein-Barr virus were responsible for around 1 in 5 of all malignancies, and yet, despite understanding this, infection with the vaccine-preventable human papillomavirus (HPV) is prevalent in South Africa.
Like the more publicized HIV, HPV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are viruses which spread:
- By sharing needles, syringes, and other injection equipment.
- From mother to child: These illnesses can be passed on to infants by pregnant women. Concurrent HIV-HCV infection raises the chance of hepatitis C transmission to the infant.
- Sexually: Both viruses may be transferred sexually, however, HBV is far more likely to be transmitted sexually than HCV. HCV is most likely to be transmitted sexually among homosexual and bisexual men living with HIV.
Although most types of HPV and pre-cancerous lesions disappear on their own, there is a chance that HPV infection will become recurrent and pre-cancerous lesions may proceed to invasive cervical cancer in all women.
How do we overcome this concerning trend?
Prevention is possible.
There are two forms of HPV vaccinations available in South Africa. Cervarix protects against the two most deadly HPV strains, strains 16 and 18, which cause cervical cancer. Gardasil protects against strains 16 and 18, as well as two others that cause genital warts. Cervarix is the immunization offered in public schools.
The HPV vaccine is safe, effective, and available for free to girls in public school systems. Take advantage of the opportunity to acquire this life-saving intervention for your daughter for free. If you attend an independent school or have a son, make arrangements for your children to get vaccinated to protect them from having certain malignancies later in life.
Hepatitis B & C
All children should get the hepatitis B vaccine.
- At birth, babies should get their first dose of the hepatitis B vaccination. By the age of 6 to 18 months, they should have received all three injections in the series.
- Infants delivered to moms who have severe hepatitis B or have previously had the virus should get a specific hepatitis B vaccination during the first 12 hours of life.
- Children who have not had the vaccination before the age of 19 should receive doses to catch up.
Adults at high risk for hepatitis B should also be vaccinated, including:
- Health care workers and those who live with someone who has the virus
- End-stage kidney disease, chronic liver disease, or HIV infection patients
- People with multiple sex partners and same-sex partners
- People who use recreational and injectable drugs
There is unfortunately no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Anyone can get HIV, but you can take steps to protect yourself from HIV.
- Get tested for HIV. Before you have sex, talk openly about HIV testing and get tested with your partner.
- Choose less risky sexual behaviours. Having anal or vaginal intercourse without using a condom or taking HIV prevention or treatment medications is the most common way for HIV to spread.
- Use condoms every time you have sex.
- Limit your number of sexual partners. The more partners you have, the more probable you are to have a partner with HIV that is poorly managed or a sexually transmitted illness (STD). Both of these conditions might make you more susceptible to HIV.
- Get tested and treated for STDs. Insist on having your partners checked and treated as well. If you have an STD, you’re more likely to get HIV or transfer it to others.
- Talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). It is an HIV prevention medical intervention for people who are HIV-negative but at risk of contracting the virus. PrEP is a method of reducing the risk of contracting HIV through sex or injectable drug usage by taking a particular HIV treatment every day.
- Do not inject drugs. If you do, be sure to use only sterilized drug injecting equipment and water, and don’t share your needles with others.
Types of cancer that may develop
- Hepatitis B and C are transmitted from person to person in a similar manner to HIV. Viral hepatitis, a kind of liver illness, is caused by both viruses. Hepatitis B and C are the only viruses that can cause long-term infections that raise the risk of liver cancer. Long-term Hepatitis C infection has also been associated with other malignancies, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to some studies.
- The most frequent HPV-related disease is cervical cancer, although HPV may also cause malignancies of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).
- HIV/AIDS patients are more likely to develop Kaposi sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and cervical cancer. These three tumours are commonly referred to as “AIDS-defining diseases” among HIV patients. This implies that if a person with HIV develops one of these tumours, it might indicate that AIDS has progressed.
In both resource-rich and resource-limited contexts, sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) constitute a serious public health issue. STIs are often asymptomatic, but they can lead to a variety of issues. Screening for STIs has two primary goals: identifying and treating infected people before they develop problems, as well as identifying, testing, and treating their sex partners to avoid transmission and reinfections. Contact your doctor to learn about the many tests available to determine whether or not you have caught these viruses.