Dr. Dawn Cooper Barnes, president of the Liberia Cancer Society (LCS), has said in the next five years, the prevalence and mortality rates of cervical cancer will triple in the country if nothing is done to arrest the situation.
Dr. Barnes said every year, 366 persons are diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is likely to take away the lives of the victims mostly women between the ages of 15 and 44 years.
“Although the diagnoses of 366 are the ones recorded, we suspected that the number of cases exceeds more than what has been recorded taking into consideration the challenges of covering the entire country over bad road networks,” Dr. Barnes added.
She said the lack of cancer equipment in clinics and hospitals across the country also makes it difficult to carry on pre-cancerous lesions screening to discover the disease at the early stage.
Early treatment prevents up to 80 percent of cervical cancers,” said Dr. Barnes, noting, “But without early screening, it means that the disease is often not identified until it is in its advanced stage to the extent that the symptoms have developed, thereby greatly reducing the patient’s chances of survival.
“This is the reality: the more advanced the stage, the less the chances of surviving,” said Dr. Barnes.
The disease is caused by “Human Paploma Virus (HPV)”.
“Therefore, all most of the patients, who have had cervical cancer carried the virus,” Dr. Barnes said.
The HPV, she said is a virus that is sexually transmitted and in women, it takes 10 or more years before it turns to cervical cancer.
Dr. Barnes: “The bad news is that the virus does not only cause cervical cancer, but it can also cause cancer of the vagina, the vulvae (the external genitals of the female), the anus and the throat.”
“Sexual intercourse is the primary cause of transmission of genital HPV infection; however, having many kids, multiple sexual partners, starting sex at the early ages of 12 or 13 as well as the prolong use of contraceptive pills are all established risk factors.
What needs to be done?
According to Dr. Barnes, almost 95 percent of Liberian women have never had any form of screening for cervical cancer or any form of cancer; therefore in order to reduce the death rate of cervical cancer, health authorities need to focus on purchasing equipment for cancer screening to save more lives.
“The importance of early screening cannot be overlooked. With early screening, you detect pre-cancerous lesions, which can easily be treated,” she said.
According to her, “Since pre-cancerous lesions take many years to develop, every Liberian woman between the ages of 30 to 40 years should be screened at least once in a lifetime, and ideally more frequently.”
She added that screening is one of the best ways to reduce the prevalence of the disease or any other form of cancer.
Dr. Barnes said the government has brought into the country HPV vaccines-16 and 18, which are known to prevent cervical cancers in girls between the ages of 9-13 years before they become sexually active. A nationwide campaign to vaccinate girls in that age bracket will reduce their rate of contracting the disease by 50 percent in the country.
“Although these vaccines cannot treat HPV infection or HPV-associated disease such as cancer, Dr. Barnes said, “When administered, it protects the persons against other less common HPV types, which cause cervical cancer.”
In addition, one of the vaccines also protects against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause anogenital (from the anus to the base of the penis or vagina) warts (moles, growths).
Dr. Barnes recommended preventive interventions such as educating boys and girls about safe sexual practices including delayed start of sexual activity; encouraging the use of condoms for those already engaged in sexual activity, and warnings about the use of tobacco, which is an important risk factor for cervical and other cancers.
Dr. Barnes added: “Women who are sexually active should be screened for abnormal cervical cells and pre-cancerous lesions, starting from 30 years of age.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Barnes has appealed for donor support to enable LCS to create awareness about the virus and all other forms of cancer.
Founded in 1977 and reactivated in 2012, LCS is committed to creating awareness and to educating the public about prevention, diagnosis and treatment of all forms of cancer.