Cervical cancer is caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. It affects younger age groups as a result of early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, and exposure to other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which at least 13 are cancer-causing. Two types of HPV cause 70 percent of all cervical cancer. Most sexually active men and women will be infected at some point in their lives with HPV — some may be repeatedly infected.
The World Health Organisation estimates HPV infections cause approximately 68 000 cases of cervical cancer each year in Africa. However, these figures most likely represent a conservative estimate due to the health challenges in health information systems and cancer registries in the African region. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. Yet it is the most common cause of cancer in the region where it accounts for 22 percent of all female cancers and 12 percent of all newly diagnosed cancer in both men and women every year.
In Africa, 34 out of every 100 000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 23 out of every 100 000 women die from cervical cancer every year. This figure compares with seven out of every 100 000 women being diagnosed with cervical cancer and three out of every 100 000 women dying of the disease every year in North America.
In Africa, most of these women are diagnosed at advanced stage of cancer which is associated with poor outcomes. There is a safe and very effective vaccine that protects against HPV and it has the potential to prevent one third of all cases of cervical cancer. Two HPV vaccines are certified safe by WHO and are intended for use in girls between age 9 and 13 years. The vaccine produces the highest immune response at this age and it is important to receive the vaccine before exposure to HPV.