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All you need to know about the HPV virus and vaccine

Thursday September 19 2019

HPV virus vaccine

Human papillomavirus vaccine. PHOTO | FILE 

ELIZABETH MERAB
By ELIZABETH MERAB
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Before the end of September, the government will begin a nationwide campaign to vaccinate young girls aged 10 against the risk of contracting cervical cancer.

The vaccine will be given free of charge at about 9,000 public, private and faith-based health facilities countrywide.

The vaccine will also be given to girls who are not in school but fall in this age group.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus.

Depending on the strain, HPV is an infection that causes warts in various parts of the body. The virus is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but some types can lead to cancer or genital warts.

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SEXUAL CONTACT

There are over 100 varieties of HPV, more than 40 of which are passed through sexual contact and can affect your genitals, mouth, or throat.

According to the World Health Organisation, virtually all cervical cancer cases (99 per cent) are linked to genital infection with HPV and it is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract.

It’s important to note that while some cases of genital HPV infection may not cause any health problems, other types of HPV can lead to cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat.

How can you get HPV?

HPV is recognised to be the most frequently acquired sexually transmitted viral infection worldwide.

Most people get a genital HPV infection through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. You don’t have to engage in intercourse to contract HPV. This is because the virus can be passed through a skin-to-skin infection.

SYMPTOMS

Genital HPV infections are very common. According to the WHO, The peak time for acquiring infection for both women and men is shortly after becoming sexually active.

Does it have symptoms?

While symptoms may include warts on the genitals or surrounding skin, many people don't develop any symptoms but can still infect.

Most people with HPV have no symptoms and feel totally fine, so they usually don’t even know they’re infected.

According to Planned Parenthood, most genital HPV infections aren’t harmful at all and go away on their own.

CANCER
It’s also possible to have multiple types of HPV. Some kinds of HPV can lead to genital warts or certain types of cancer.

• Two types of HPV (types 6 and 11) cause most cases of genital warts. These two cause more than 90 percent of genital warts in men and women. But they are considered low-risk HPV because they don’t lead to cancer or other serious health problems.

• At least a dozen types of HPV can sometimes lead to cancer, though two in particular (types 16 and 18) lead to the majority of cancer cases.

• Cervical cancer is most commonly linked to HPV, but HPV can also cause cancer in your vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.

Does HPV affect only women?

Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person.

Much of the information about HPV virus (human papillomavirus) centers on women, since having the virus increases their risk of getting cervical cancer.

But HPV virus in men can cause health problems, too. Often, a man will clear the virus on his own, with no health problems.

In men the virus increases the risk of getting some rare genital cancers.

In rare cases, a mother who has HPV can transmit the virus to her baby during delivery.

How do I protect myself from getting infected with HPV?

• Get the HPV vaccine to prevent HPV cancers and genital warts: The HPV vaccine Gardasil protects against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, as well as most genital warts.

• Consider abstinence if you’re not ready or don’t want to have sex: The only 100 percent effective way to prevent HPV transmission is abstinence from any sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

• If you cannot abstain, glove up: If you are sexually active, using condoms can help lower the risk of HPV transmission. It is important to use a condom from start to finish of every sex act, including oral and anal sex. HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. It is however important to note that condoms will not fully protect you against contracting HPV, since the virus can infect areas that are not covered by the condom.

• Don't start having sex too young: The younger you are when you start having sex, the greater your risk for acquiring an HPV infection if you’re exposed to the virus. The age group with the highest prevalence of HPV infection is between ages 15 and 25. There’s no way to know whether a prospective partner who is sexually experienced has HPV.

• Avoid multiple partners: at any age, limit your number of sexual partners. This is because the more sexual partners, the more possible exposure to HPV. But even one sexual partner who has been exposed to HPV is enough to infect you.

Who needs the vaccine? Why?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all boys and girls be vaccinated at age 11 or 12, before any likely exposure to sexually transmitted strains of HPV. But the vaccine is approved for girls, boys, women, and men ages 9 to 45.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends vaccination of all girls and screening, at least once every year, for older women to reduce cancer risk, and the vaccine is most effective when administered between the ages of nine and 14.

Why is Kenya vaccinating young girls aged 10?

The vaccine is said to be most effective when administered between the ages of nine and 14.

In Kenya, however, the cohort selected for the vaccine are girls of 10 years. This is because there is a global shortage of the HPV vaccine since many countries are rolling it out.
The Ministry the decision was made to protect girls of this age before they are exposed to the virus. In Kenya, the age of sexual debut among girls is also less than 15 years, making the vaccine effective in younger girls.

So what is this vaccine?

It is the first of its kind to be developed specifically targeting the prevention of cervical cancer effective.

Two HPV vaccines are currently prequalified by WHO:

• a bivalent which protects against two HPV types 16 and 18

• a quadrivalent vaccine, with capabilities of protecting against six types HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18 and genital warts.

In Kenya, the vaccine that will be given Gardasil, also known as Gardisil or Silgard or recombinant human papillomavirus vaccine [types 6, 11, 16, 18]. Gardasil manufactured by Merck Sharp & Dohme, an American multinational pharmaceutical company is a quadrivalent vaccine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends countries to include HPV vaccination into national immunization programmes as part of a coordinated and comprehensive strategy that includes education, access to quality screening, and treatment.

How many doses will I need to be HPV-free?

Two doses, six months apart.

If I am older than 10years, can I still get the vaccine?

Yes. The vaccine is available in private health facilities at a cost of between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000.