CANCER of the cervix is a disease that we can get rid of in Jamaica, just as we got rid of polio and smallpox. When last have you heard of a child getting infected with polio in Jamaica?
Currently, over 168 women die every year in Jamaica from this cancer. But we can now prevent every one of these cases with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine.
As our search for knowledge continues, we are discovering that several cancers are caused by microorganisms. For example, the hepatitis virus causes hepatitis, and can cause liver damage and lead to cancer of the liver. Similarly, the Helicobacter pylori bacteria that causes stomach ulcers can lead to cancer of the stomach.
The HPV virus causes over seven types of cancer — cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix, cancer of the ano-genital region, cancer of the colon, cancer of the tongue, and cancer of the mouth. In addition there is a strong association with the HPV virus and basal cell cancers and squamous cell cancers of the skin. Most of these cancers would seem to be prime candidates for prevention by using the HPV vaccine. In fact, the intention is to ensure that cancer of the cervix disappears into history. If the responsibility of parents is to ensure a better life for their children, then one of the greatest gifts you can give your daughter is the possibility of never getting cancer of the cervix.
The HPV virus is a species-specific virus. It can only infect humans and usually causes warts. The warts that you see on your dog are caused by the canine papilloma virus, and the warts on your cat are caused by the feline papilloma virus. The HPV virus is spread from human to human by direct skin contact. The virus infects cells on the surface of the skin and migrates down to the basal layer of the epidermis — the uppermost layer of the skin. The virus enters the skin through microscopic tears in the skin, and these tears are usually caused by friction — sexual contact in the case of genital warts. The warts infect the basal layer of the epidermis, then the cells of the basal layer produce a new virus which migrates upwards to the surface of the epidermis and then infects another human being.
An infection with the HPV virus does not mean that one will develop cancer. Most of the time the human body gets rid of the HPV virus and cancer does not develop. But the genome — the entire genetic envelope of the HPV virus — has been cracked, and now we understand how the virus works to cause cancer. All of this can be prevented with the use of a simple vaccine.
Dr Neil Persadsingh, the acne doctor, practises at Nuttall Medical Centre, Cross Roads. He can be reached at 960-2797 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.