Empowering women to win over cervical cancer through screening and vaccination
In the Philippines (2020), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer among women after breast cancer. Globocan reported an estimated 7,897 new cervical cancer cases and 4,052 deaths to occur annually, based on 2020 data. Research has shown that the leading cause of cervical cancer is human papilloma virus or HPV. Aside from cervical cancer, HPV is listed as an infectious agent for five other types of HPV-related diseases and cancers – throat, oral, anal, penile, and vaginal.
While cancer remains a global health threat, cervical cancer may be prevented through vaccination, early detection and established screening programs. Filipino women need to know this simple truth in order to win over cervical cancer. To advocate for cervical cancer awareness, the Philippine Obstetrics and Gynecology Society (POGS) Cebu Chapter in partnership with Central Visayas Center for Health Development, Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) and MSD hosted an online event to celebrate the month of May as Scarlet May with the theme Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and National Visual Inspection Acetic (VIA) Day. This online webinar aimed to increase awareness of cervical cancer, and highlight the importance of early HPV vaccination and detection through VIA screening.
The power of screening
Since 1987, DOH had been laying the groundwork for equitable healthcare services including programs for cancer prevention, care and treatment through the Philippine Cancer Control Program. An integral component of this program is advocating for early detection, quality treatment and promotion of healthy lifestyle.
“Screening is the method of detecting cervical cancer and shall be done routinely in all health facilities and to have in place in existing health system,” said Dr. Joan Antonette Albito, Medical Coordinator of the National Immunization Program of Central Visayas Center for Health Development.
Visual inspection of the cervix with acetic acid (VIA) is an inexpensive screening test that can be combined with simple treatment procedures for early cervical lesions, provided by trained health workers. As early as 2005, DOH launched the VIA training in rural health units, district hospitals and provincial hospitals to help prevent HPV- related diseases. Where there is no capacity for pap smear, VIA is the best available early screening method for women. It only takes one minute to perform the visual inspection and the results are recorded immediately.
“Routine screening may help save lives. Nearly 100% of women diagnosed at the pre-cancer stage of cervical cancer survived,” expressed Dr. Albito. “For all the women out there, take time out of your day for your health. Advocate for yourself and for your children.”
Cancer of the cervix may be prevented if detected early. To date, Pap smears remains a reliable way to diagnose early cervical cancer.
“Pap smear should be done three years from the onset of first sexual intercourse. Usually, changes in the cervix are seen within three years. But if you have symptoms like spotting, discharge prior to the three years, you have to consult your doctor, your OB-GYNE or the nearest health center,” advised Dr. Pherdes Galbo, President of POGS Cebu Chapter.
The power of vaccination
In her lecture, Dr. Ma. Emma Llanto, President of the Philippine Society of Adolescent Medicine and Head of the Philippine Pediatric Society Committee on Adolescent Health, lamented that due to late detection, 3,000 Filipinas died of cervical cancer in 2020 – that is 12 mothers, sisters, wives, grandmothers, aunts, or friends dying every day!
“We have the power to help prevent cervical cancer by preventing HPV. HPV vaccine has been around since 2006 and recommended by international organizations and local medical societies,” emphasized Dr. Llanto.
Dr. Llanto noted that the Department of Health (DOH) included HPV vaccine in its national immunization program through its school-based immunization campaign (SBI). Studies have shown that HPV vaccine may be effective when given earlier and prior to exposure to infection. Young girls aged 9 to 14 are required to receive two doses of vaccine; while girls aged 15 to 26 are required three doses of HPV vaccine.
Vaccination hesitancy is a common hurdle. Efficacy and safety of vaccines are major concerns of the public. Due to lack of information and misinformation, parents miss out on the golden opportunity to have their daughters vaccinated, according to Dr Llanto.
“HPV vaccine may be effective. It can prevent up to 90% of all cervical cancers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 100 countries have been using HPV vaccine. Since 2006, 270 million doses have been administered,” noted Dr. Llanto.
Medical professionals recognized that HPV vaccine, like any medicine, may have side effects. The most common side effects are usually mild, like a sore arm from the shot. Severe allergic reactions following vaccination are rare, but can be life threatening. But the ultimate benefit for the vaccinated individual is full protection against cervical cancer and five other HPV-related cancers.
The power of community
Women find strength from each other’s stories, journey and experiences. When women come together, they form a strong bond that provides encouragement and support.
“Collaboration is key to fighting cancer. The healthcare industry, advocacy groups and cancer community should work together to advance cancer care,” urged Dr. Albito.
Cervical cancer is real and hits closer to home. But we can win over cancer. Early screening and vaccination may help prevent cervical cancer from claiming the lives of important women in our lives.