“Human papillomavirus infection is usually acquired from sexual activity. Vaccination against the HPV virus is most effective when it is introduced before exposure to the human papillomavirus”, says Dr Chew Ghee Kheng​, Senior Consultant at the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

Only 4 per cent of women in Singapore are vaccinated against HPV that affects up to 70 per cent of sexually active people at some point in their lives.

Cervical cancer is the tenth most common cancer affecting women in Singapore. A total of 1,005 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed between 2010 and 2014, according to the Singapore Cancer Registry Interim Report 2010-2014.

Cervical screening using a Pap smear has helped to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. However, screening in Singapore is opportunistic, so it may not target all the women who are at risk. Vaccination against HPV, which is recommended by Singapore's Ministry of Health for girls and women aged 9 to 26 years old, will lead to a further decline in the incidence of cervical cancer.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

The human papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV, is transmitted through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital to genital contact.

There are many variants of HPV, some of which cause socially embarrassing diseases such as genital warts. Genital warts do not lead to cancer.

However, about 15 types of HPV are known to cause changes in the cells of the lower genital tract that can lead to pre-cancer changes (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia) and ultimately turn into cancers of the cervix and of the lower genital tract.

Although most women will have been exposed to HPV at some point, in more than 90 per cent of cases, the body will clear the infection. Repeated infection with the virus, weakened immunity or other carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) such as cigarette smoking will decrease the body’s ability to clear the human papillomavirus. Over time, the changes in the cells can lead to pre-cancer and ultimately cancer.

Read on for more details on HPV vaccine and the benefits.

Ref: S13