HPV testing could save lives in the Caribbean

Medical experts are considering the introduction of HPV testing in the Caribbean to reduce the number of women who are affected by cervical cancer.

Health advocates from the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization met last month to identify ways to make the testing for human papillomavirus infection more widely available in the Caribbean and Latin America, after statistics found that about 80 percent of the 36,00 women who died from cervical cancer in 2012 in the Americas were in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Of the more than 100 types of HPV, at least 14 are known to cause cancer. The HPV tests detect the infection and identify abnormal cells allowing women to seek early treatment.

WHO regional adviser on cancer prevention, Silvana Luciani, said evidence had shown the newer technology was better at detecting precancerous lesions and, when coupled with treatment, could save many women’s lives.

“It also has the advantage that women can take their own samples at home without having to go to a health center, which helps overcome geographic and cultural barriers,” Ms. Luciani said.

“If it were possible to implement this test in screening and treatment programs, we could prevent many women from losing their lives, especially the poorest and those who have difficulty accessing health services.”

The tests also enable women to wait longer between screenings. Women between the ages of 30 and 49 with a negative HPV test can be re-screened every five to 10 years.

Director of Research and CEO at the Translational Research Institute, Ian Frazer, invented the vaccine in Australia. It became the first country to offer a comprehensive and government funded vaccination program for 12-25 year old women, in 2007.

“As a consequence, the virus responsible for cervical cancer has virtually disappeared from men and women under 30 in Australia,” Mr. Frazer said.

He said currently there are few developed screening programs for cervical cancer in Latin America, in contrast to Canada and the United States, but he said the introduction of the program, over time, would create a sharp reduction in cervical cancer and other related cancers amongst women receiving the vaccine before the onset of sexual activity.

“The vaccine is a very conventional vaccine – works like all other vaccines by preventing infection through inducing antibodies. The vaccine is made in yeast, and is very similar to the Hepatitis B vaccine, using DNA technology,” Mr. Frazer said.

“There is no live virus in the vaccine, and its proven very safe with one in one million allergic reactions and otherwise only the occasional sore arm for a day after administration. We came up with the technology back in 1990 to make the vaccine which comprises virus like particles which resemble the shell of the virus sufficiently to induce a protective antibody response if given two times.”

The limited availability and the high cost of tests have been barriers to the wider use of HPV testing in the Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Argentina and Mexico are the only Latin American countries that have introduced the HPV testing in national public programs. Colombia, El Salvador, St. Vincent and the Grenadines are implementing the test on a pilot basis.

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