HPV causes a number of health problems including genital warts and cancers. The cancers include cervical cancer in women.
The virus is widespread in Kenya and almost all sexually active people are infected with it at some point in their lives. However, the virus causes these diseases only in a faction of them. HPV is more widespread than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes Aids.
“In July 2013, I was shocked to learn that I had cervical cancer. This was after a doctor carried out several tests at a Nairobi hospital. The cancer had already spread by then,” Rose says. Emotional drain She adds: “My life was saved by weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I had never heard of HPV and cervical cancer before I was diagnosed. I only learnt about it after it had affected me. I wish I had known about it much earlier. Maybe I would have protected myself,” says Rose, who is now an anti-cancer advocate. “It saddens me that many Kenyans, especially women, are paying and will continue paying, a high price for not being aware of HPV and its risks.” HPV, which is incurable, is believed to be behind the sharp increase in cases of cervical cancer, now among the most common forms of cancer killing many people in Kenya.
Some 2,451 women die from cervical cancer in Kenya every year while another 4,802 are diagnosed with the disease, mostly in its advanced stages, according to the Ministry of Health.
The virus also causes anal, penile, and vaginal cancers, which are more rare, as well as genital warts, common in both women and men. The virus tends to have less impact on men, who often infect women during sexual intercourse. There are at least 100 known sub-types of HPV, 14 of of which are linked to cancer. HPV 16 and HPV 18 cause at least 70 per cent of cervical cancers.
Despite the risks posed by HPV, many Kenyans are unaware of it. A recent survey on 327 women in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu, aged 18 to 60, revealed that 97 per cent of them did not know about HPV. Research firm The survey was conducted in October 2016 by a research firm on behalf of the Lancet Group of Laboratories.
“Not knowing HPV causes cervical cancer is like not knowing that HIV causes Aids. The fact that less than five per cent of women in Kenya know about the link between HPV and cervical cancer should be a wake-up call to all stakeholders to raise public awareness about the virus.
“In most people, HPV infections go away on their own within months due to the body’s immune system. But in some cases, they don’t go away and can result in cancer and genital warts
It often takes years, sometimes decades, for HPV to cause cancers, but early intervention is critical.” Nairobi-based consultant obstetrician-gynaecologist Fredrick Kairithia says HPV is lethal since it rarely exhibits symptoms and in case it causes a disease, one only realises it when it is too late. “People who start having sex at an early age or have multiple sex partners, smoke tobacco, or have HIV face higher risks of developing diseases from HPV infections,” he says.