Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women living in less developed regions with an estimated 445 000 new cases in 2012 (84% of the new cases worldwide). In 2012, approximately 270 000 women died from cervical cancer; more than 85% of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. It is by far the most common HPV-related disease with nearly all cases of cervical cancer being attributable to HPV infection. Two HPV types (16 and 18) cause 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions. There is also evidence linking HPV with cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis, mouth, throat and oropharynx.

Presently, it is estimated that over 200 million females older than 15 years are in sexual relationships, and are therefore at risk of cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. it is however difficult to estimate the true burden of cervical cancer in the region due to the failure of women to report cervical cancer in hospital settings and the limited number of cancer registries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Signs and symptoms

The majority of HPV infections do not cause symptoms or disease and resolve spontaneously. However, persistent infection may lead to precancerous lesions. If untreated, these lesions may progress to cervical cancer. It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems and 5 to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems, such as those with untreated HIV infection.

Symptoms of cervical cancer tend to appear only after the cancer has reached an advanced stage and may include:

• Irregular, inter-menstrual (between periods) bleeding

• Abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse;

• Back, leg or pelvic pain

• Fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite;

• Vaginal discomfort or odourous discharge

• A single swollen leg.

More severe symptoms may arise at advanced stages