HPV and Cervical Cancer

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, refers to a viral infection that affects the skin and mucous membranes of both men and women. There are over 100 different strains of HPV, of which 40 are known to infect the anogenital tract [1, 3]. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease and it is estimated that approximately 60% of all sexually active women and men in South Africa contract the virus at some point in their lives [2, 4].

The risk factors for HPV acquisition include unsafe sexual behaviors, early sexual debut, multiple sex partners, early pregnancy, hormonal contraception use as well as co-infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections [3, 8].

It is important to emphasize that HPV can also occur in those in a monogamous (one-partner) relationship so the risk isn’t limited to those having multiple partners.

The majority of HPV infections are asymptomatic (no symptoms) and can be cleared by the immune system. However, persistence of particular strains of the virus is associated with the development of benign genital warts as well as certain cancers. The most common cancer associated with HPV infection is cervical cancer [1, 5, 6, 13]. Worldwide, it is estimated that 99% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Furthermore, in South Africa, cervical cancer ranks as the leading cause of female cancer deaths in women aged 15-44 years [3, 8].

Of important note, cervical cancer due to HPV is a preventable disease. Regular screening leading to early detection and treatment is at the forefront of managing the heavy burden of cervical cancer that is placed on the developing world [3, 12, 13].

MDS offers such screening tests,  please click the tabs to the left to learn more.