How can you get cervical cancer?
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are attributable to persistent infection by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is sexually transmitted—in fact, it is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections and affects both men and women. There are over 100 strains of HPV, but two particularly virulent strains, types 16 and 18, cause around 70 per cent of all cases of cervical cancer.
In many women, the infection will spontaneously clear. But for others, over time, chronic infection causes abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix: pre-cancer. If left untreated, these can progress to cancer, silently—but, as explained below, not invisibly—over a period of 15 to 20 years.
However, HPV infection is especially aggressive in HIV-positive women and girls, which means they can fast track to cervical cancer in less than half that time.
In Malawi, increasing numbers of women contract cervical cancer every year, with almost two thirds of them dying from the disease. Diagnosis detection is often in late middle-age—often too late to avoid terminal illness and the suffering that accompanies it.
These women are the cervical cancer cases that should not be, because they could have been prevented.