Nearly 90% of the world’s population have HPV

Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancers are directly linked to Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Dr. Esther Rockson, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at St Philip's Private Hospital, is on a mission to eradicate this statistic in Ghana.

Dr. Rockson says HPV is quite simply a sexually transmitted virus that affects both sexes. This virus is widespread and researchers estimate that nearly every sexually active person on the planet is likely to contract the virus at some point in their lives.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ghana has had an HPV vaccine for nearly 15 years that eradicates HPV infections and thus drastically reduces cancers of the reproductive and digestive organs which have been previously linked to HPV.

As Dr. Rockson explains, some HPV infections will result in high risk cases, while others will organically resolve themselves in patients over time. This is why she advises getting tested for HPV to understand which strain you are carrying and then following through with a vaccine regardless.

She says HPV is misunderstood to be a virus that only affects women because it causes 99% of cervical cancer, but men are actually carriers of the virus. This is evidenced in the majority of anorectal cancers found in same sex, male couples.

Dr. Rockson says in studies between female same sex couples, HPV-related cancers of the cervix for example, were exponentially lower. This is why she recommends the vaccine for both men and women.

“HPV is a sexually transmitted infection just like HIV. The sad thing about it is that [it is linked] to promiscuity [and stigma], but unfortunately there are members of the population who are carriers of it. For men who die of anorectal cancers linked to HPV, they die in silence. We don’t have ways of screening for HPV in males. But, in females we’ve got the tools [to do so] and the tools are very effective.”

At her practice, Dr. Rockson will screen a woman for HPV through a vaginal swab. She says, however, that there are methods of conducting the test without swabbing which may be beneficial for young girls.

She says testing of the swabs will reveal high risk cells which are the cancer-causing cells, and this pertains to cancer of the cervix, or low risk cells which would resolve itself on its own. “There are 2 vaccines for high risk strains, one covers against 2 high risk strains and the other covers against 4 high risk strains. We’ve got Cervarix which provides protection against HPV types 16 and 18, and Gardasil which provides protection against an additional 20% of cancer-causing HPV types.”

HPV 16 and 18 (high risk cells) account for 70 – 90% of all cervical cancers. The vaccine for it has been shown to be effective from a clinical and cost perspective.

Dr. Rockson says the reason she is a proponent of the HPV vaccine in Ghana is because of the vast amounts of people who die preventable deaths because of a virus that can be cured in three doses or less. She says the ripple effect of a woman having a high-risk HPV strain is that if she were to have a baby, during the vaginal birth process the baby is exposed to HPV (through genital warts) and that young life is put in harm’s way.

Vaccines are available in Ghana for girls and women up to the age of 45. Men are also entitled to get the vaccine. Retail pharmacies offer the vaccine, and it is not necessary to be screened for HPV before receiving a dose. Dr. Rockson says there are no side effects and the benefits of safeguarding yourself from HPV-linked cancers will give you peace of mind.

Myths about HPV and the vaccine

  1. The vaccine can only be administered to people who have not been exposed to HPV.
    “That is not actually true. There is evidence to prove the slowing of the progression of the virus with the vaccine protocol. So, if you have been exposed, the vaccine helps clear out the virus from your body.
  2. Only girls between the ages of 9 and 14 can receive the vaccine
    “Anyone up until the age of 45 years old can receive the vaccine. Even young boys can be vaccinated. I’ve vaccinated my 10-year-old son because I recognise that at some point in his life, he is going to contract the virus and pass it on to his partner.
  3. The HPV vaccine causes infertility
    “The vaccine only responds to the virus. It does not alter your cells or the functioning of your reproductive system. It is perfectly safe to take