The next time you have to deal with the frustrations of a stuffy nose and sore throat, take comfort in the fact that you may just have the common cold. Those infected with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) are not so lucky, because this silent but equally common virus could lead to cervical cancer, one of the deadliest cancers among women in Singapore.
One of the most common sexually-transmitted infections
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, yet there is low knowledge here. The virus is usually without symptoms and cleared by the body naturally, but certain high-risk HPV types can persist and develop into anogenital cancers. These cause almost all cervical cancers, so women are encouraged to take the HPV vaccination for up to 95 percent protection.
Although HPV vaccines have been available in Singapore for almost a decade, the take-up rate among women here is low, with only 3 percent of the female population in Singapore having received the vaccination as of 2010. This is a worrying figure as one in 10 healthy women in Singapore has HPV. In contrast, the vaccine coverage of 18 year-old women in Malaysia, which was among the first in Southeast Asia to implement a national HPV immunisation programme in 2010, was 87 percent as of 2016.
How common is it?
Dr Ida Ismail-Pratt, consultant at the Division of Gynaecologic Oncology at the National University Cancer Institute Singapore (NCIS), emphasised the importance of the HPV vaccination. “Everyone will be exposed to the HPV virus. It is like the flu virus, it is very common. That’s why it’s important to take the HPV vaccination, and the younger you take it, the better the protection will be.”
This campaign targets the most at-risk group of unvaccinated women between the ages of 19 and 24. This is because a 2014 study by the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) found HPV infections to be the most common among 20 to 24 year-olds. In fact, a fifth of them carry high-risk HPV types associated with cervical cancer.
Dr Chia Yin Nin, senior consultant gynaecologist oncologist, said, “I tell all young girls to empower and protect themselves. We cannot predict who will get HPV and who will not. So please, take the HPV vaccination to save your life, and save your womb.”
About the HPV vaccination
The HPV vaccination is a two or three-dose vaccination recommended for females aged 9 to 26, ideally before sexual exposure. It is administered over a period of six months, and can provide up to 95 percent protection from cervical cancer. For two out of the three available vaccines, women can claim up to $400 per Medisave account a year.
Sexually active women aged 25 to 69 are recommended to also go for regular Pap smear and HPV tests for early detection of abnormal cells in the cervix.
In 2017, the Ministry of Health (MOH) established the National Adult Immunisation Schedule (NAIS) as a vaccination guide for those aged 18 and above, to help them make informed choices on vaccination for personal protection. The HPV vaccination is among the seven recommended types of vaccines to help prevent a total of 11 diseases.