International HPV Awareness Day in March
Every year in March, International HPV Awareness Day #hpvawarenessday is observed to raise awareness of the very common human papillomavirus or HPV (#HPV), because some types of HPV can cause cancer of the reproductive organs, and this can result in infertility.
Being reproductive health specialists and fertility experts, our Medfem team gladly contributes to raising awareness on International HPV Awareness Day. In this article, we share some information about this very common virus from the global experts, explain its potential impact on fertility, and provide advice about what to do if you are concerned about your fertility.
HPV – short for human papillomavirus – is so common, that most of us will get it at some point during our lives, and many of us of will not even know we had it. Sadly, for others, it will be the cause of warts on the hands, feet, and genitals, and even cancers of the reproductive system.
Because of the impact this would have on fertility, our team would like to share some information about this virus and how to prevent it from developing into cancer from the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS), which is the leading global authority on human papillomaviruses (HPV). Along with other leading organisations such as CANSA, our team at Medfem Fertility Clinic promote the IPVS’s #onelessworry campaign and greater awareness of HPV and the prevention of the cancers it can cause.
HPV and its related reproductive organ cancers
According to the IPVS, HPV is responsible for around 630,000 cancer diagnoses globally each year.
This is because although most of our immune systems can usually get rid of the virus within two years without causing any harm, some people’s immune systems cannot get rid of HPV, which then causes changes to the cells over time, and over many years can lead to cancer, if left untreated.
As such, HPV increases your risk of developing certain cancers. It is responsible for almost all cases of cervical and anal cancers, as well as for around half of cases vulvar and penile cancers globally.
The numbers provided by the IPVS are sobering. Around 90% of cervical cancer diagnoses are caused by HPV. Cancer of the cervix is the fourth most common cancer in women, and claims the lives of more than 3,000 South African women each year, according to CANSA.
Similarly around 90% of anal cancer diagnoses are caused by HPV. When it comes to vaginal cancer, about 80% of cases of vaginal cancer are caused by HPV. Around half of all cases of vulvar cancer are caused by HPV and more than half of the cancers affecting the skin of the penis are caused by HPV. The virus is also the cause of around 1 in 3 head and neck cancer diagnoses.
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact and can stay in a person’s body for decades. And because the types of HPV that can cause cancer usually don’t have any symptoms, it is very important to be screened for the virus.
While there is no cure for HPV yet, the abnormal cell changes it causes can be treated to prevent cancer developing.
How Can You Prevent HPV-Related Reproductive Organ Cancer?
HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) globally, which means prevention is crucial.
The most important steps you can take to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before you have sex and to use condoms during every sexual encounter, realising that the virus is easily spread and can stay in a person’s body undetected for years.
Fortunately, all of the vaccines currently available prevent infection with HPV types that cause most HPV-related cancers, and some vaccines also protect against the types that cause genital warts.
Vaccination can prevent 90% of cervical and anal cancers and most other cancers caused by HPV.
Cervical screening through a PAP smear is also used to detect the cell changes (known as cervical dysplasia) caused by HPV. Early detection means that the abnormal cells can be removed before they can turn into cancer. If an HPV test is used as the primary screening procedure, the result will identify women who are at risk of cell changes and cancer. Further tests are done based on age, type of HPV infection and previous screening results.
Screening for and treating cell changes is highly effective at reducing the risk of cervical cancer. Sadly, there is only screening for cervical cancer. There are no recommended screening tests to reduce the risk of vulvar or vaginal cancer, penile cancer or head and neck cancers.
Because smoking can make it harder for your immune system to get rid of HPV. So, if you smoke, this is another great reason to stop.
In addition, if you have any symptoms or changes to your body that are unusual for you, such as pain in the anal or genital area, a new growth or lump, or bleeding, you should immediately see a healthcare provider. The earlier you are diagnosed and treated, the better your chances of preventing cancer and avoiding a negative impact on your fertility.
Impact of reproductive organ cancer on your fertility
While the HPV virus itself may not affect fertility directly, the cancers it causes and their treatment will certainly impact the fertility in both women and men.
Many cancer patients today have fair prospects for survival, thanks to advances in medical science, with common cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Sadly, for all cancer patients, there is a risk of infertility as a result of the cancer itself or the treatments thereof. In many cases, cancer treatments can leave patients unable to achieve a pregnancy afterwards.
The medical treatments for cancer – such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy – can substantially negatively affect the reproductive organs in women, resulting in immediate infertility, premature menopause, and/or a compromised ability to carry a pregnancy to term due to cervical or uterine damage. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause permanent damage or destroy eggs and follicles in the fallopian tubes. This can lead to menopause for years after treatment.
Where cancer is treated with surgery, and this too can impact fertility. For example, more advanced cervical cancer is usually treated with the removal of the womb, known as a hysterectomy, eliminating the possibility of carrying a baby. Other treatments such as surgery to remove the ovaries or fallopian tubes can drastically impair the ability to become pregnant.
Male fertility can be harmed by surgery to treat cancer in the pelvic area or by chemotherapy or radiation that damages sperm quantity, quality or DNA, and can cause azoospermia.
Concerned about your fertility?
If you are concerned about your fertility, we would like to invite you to contact us.
Medfem Fertility Clinic’s team are committed and understanding team of medical professionals, who have the experience, knowledge and desire to provide you with the best opportunity for a successful outcome at the end of your fertility treatment.
Since the 1980’s, Medfem Fertility Clinic’s team has assisted couples struggling with infertility to experience the joy of parenthood, helping to bring more than 18,000 babies into the world.
If you would like to meet one of our fertility specialists, simply click here to book an initial consultation or contact us telephonically on +27 (11) 463 2244.
Our Fertility Specialists can also meet with You During a Virtual Consultation Via Zoom or Skype. Click here to book a virtual consultation now.
We look forward to meeting you!