Of the estimated 270 000 deaths each year, more than 85% occur in less developed regions. This makes cervical cancer one of the greatest threats to women’s lives in these countries.
The high toll of cervical cancer in developing countries is due to the fact that the majority of cases are detected in late stages as a result of lack of access to health care and resources. Patients often report for treatment at a very advanced stage when their pain and symptoms have become extreme.
In most instances, cervical cancer can be prevented, and yet it is still killing millions of women worldwide. There is sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that screening for cervical cancer would result in significant reductions in incidence, mortality and morbidity.
Screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or to find it early. The first is the Pap test (or Pap smear), which detects precancerous or cancerous cells. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. In many countries, it is recommended to women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
Another screening test is the HPV test, which looks for the virus (Human Papilloma Virus) that can cause cell changes leading to cervical cancer. HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted infection among sexually active women. At least 12 types of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer.
Most sexually active people have been exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. All sexually active women are at risk of contracting it, therefore, it is highly recommended that all women visit a medical professional to discuss cervical cancer screening. Screening aims to prevent the development of cancer by identifying high-grade, pre-cancerous cervical lesions. When screening detects pre-cancerous lesions, these can be treated easily.
Screening can also detect cancer at an early stage when treatment has a much higher rate of success. Because pre-cancerous lesions take many years to develop, the World Health Organization recommends screening for women aged between 30 and 49 at least once in her lifetime and ideally more frequently.
There are preventive vaccines which have been used for decades in developed countries to protect against the most high-risk HPV groups. HPV vaccine efficiency in preventing cervical dysplasia and cancer has been recommended globally on population-based studies. Vaccination is recommended for all girls aged 9-13.
A global prevention strategy, starting with vaccination programmes and backed up by proper screening on a regular basis, would do a huge amount to fight the cancer that takes a heavy toll on women’s health and lives around the world.