Understanding Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
(By Pharm. Ifeoma Anyanechi – Nworgu)
After a year and half of marriage, Jane had her first gynecologic exam, including a pap smear. The gynecologist found something that worried her and recommended that Jane undergo a procedure called a colposcopy. The doctor found a lesion on the cervix and performed a biopsy, which is the removal of a sample of the damaged tissue for diagnosis.
“Two weeks later,” commented Jane, “The doctor had my husband and I come in for the results. She told us that the lesion was due to an infection with human papilloma virus and that it was at an advanced stage. She explained the risk of the infection becoming cervical cancer and the need to begin treatment immediately.
“Upon hearing the diagnosis, I began to cry. It was a shock to both my husband and I. A small surgery was scheduled for the following day. That afternoon, I felt very sad and worried. I asked myself, ‘Why me?’”
Having read that the virus is sexually transmitted, Jane could not understand how she had been infected. Both she and her husband had always respected the Bible’s high moral principles.
The fact is: millions of women in the world are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), considered the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this infection is the primary risk factor in the development of cervical cancer.
Many hundreds of thousands of cases of HPV are diagnosed in the world annually, and each year many thousands of women die from cervical cancer, which is a consequence of the infection. HPV is a major cause of death from cancer in women in developing countries worldwide. Cervical cancer is the second most common type of uterine cancer. No wonder WHO calls HPV “a global public health problem”.
What else should we know about this virus?
Human papilloma virus is responsible for warts in both men and women, including genital warts, called condyloma acuminate. These are generally benign, or non-cancerous. Although there are over a hundred types of HPV, only a few can be carcinogenic, that is cancerous. It is only the persistent infection with certain types of HPV that causes cervical cancer. On the other hand, most HPV infection disappears spontaneously, being overcome by the body’s immune system.
Principally, at risk women are those who are sexually active early in life, and which have multiple sexual partners. It is often a man with no outward symptoms who transmits the HPV infected to his mate.
However, in some cases, women who lead morally clean lives or perhaps have never engaged in sexual relations contact the infection; for example, a mother to her child or a person may be infested by a source other than the mother. The disease can become evident, even many years after the person has been infected.
Now to determine infection, if you are a woman, you may be asking yourself, “How can I know if I am infected with HPV?” This is an important question because the disease generally does not cause symptoms.
Thus, as in Jane’s case mentioned at the outset, the fundamental step is to have a cytological exam of the cervix called a pap smear or papanicolaou smear.
To do the test, a clinician uses a scraper or a brush to take a small sample of the cells of the cervix and sends the cells to a laboratory. The test can reveal if there is infection, inflammation or abnormal cells. It is reported that pap smears have reduced cervicial cancer mortality and morbidity rates.
WHO claims “Early detection of precancerous lesions through cytological screening has been the most probable global control of the disease”. If the results of this test are unsatisfactory a colposcopy is done, using an apparatus with a magnifying lens, to observe the affected arear. By this means, it can be determined if tthere is a lesion, if there is a biopsy taken and treatment is started.
Nowadays, even more sophisticated laboratory tests can be done. These determine, with much greater certainty, the presence of disease.
Treatment and Prevention
There are several treatments that can control HPV infection. Specialists use topical treatments. Some of these destroy the cells containing the virus, and others stimulate the immune system. Additional techniques involve removing the damaged or infected area using electro surgery, laser surgery or cryosurgery. Yet, rather than having to deal with treatment, how much better it would be if the infection could be avoided. How can that be done?
A couple of years ago, a symposium was held in Mexico City on the subject “Cervical cancer and HPV in the New Millennium”. Dr U. Cecil Wright, the canadian guest lecturer and expert on HPV advised, “Do not have intercourse until you are married.” Dr Alex Ferenczy, a professor of pathology at McGill University in Montreal Canada, likewise said, “To prevent cervical cancer, mutual monogamy must be championed.”
So, people who have lived in harmony with the moral principle of the Bible are less likely to suffer the cancer-related form of HPV infection. This is because the bible condemns sexual relationship outside of marriage, encourages faithfulness in marriage and exhorts Christains to marry only someone who follows these same principles – 1 Corithians7:39, Heb 13:4.
Still, education is essential, since HPV infection can usually be prevented. Moreover, even when the infection appears and advances, it can be treated successfully. In fact, WHO recognises that “if cervical cancer is detected in an initial asymptomatic stage, it is nearly always curable.”
In addition to moral education, “it is important for women to become informed about the disease and to understand the importance of having such tests, as the pap smear done regularly”. If a problem is detected, a woman can get medical care. Regarding having a proper attitude toward such care, Dr. Montserrat Flores, a specialist in colposcopy, notes “if a woman knows the magnitude of her problem, she can avoid going to two dangerous extremes: one, not assigning proper importance to the disease and not following through with medical care, which can result in cancer and the other, becoming a victim of cancer phobia and submitting to unnecessary surgical procedures.”
Although the results of Jane’s last exam were satisfactory, she still goes for a colposcopy every six months. After having concluded much about her illness, she concluded: “Even if we carry HPV, there is much we can do to keep ourselves healthy.”
Very important: women should eat a healthful diet, such as a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits and cereals. Some studies have suggested that consumption of carotenes vitamin A, C and E and folic acid may reduce the risk of cervical cancer.