A Virus That Should Concern Women
AFTER a year and a half of marriage, Cristina* had her first gynecologic exam, including a Pap smear. The gynecologist found something that worried her and recommended that Cristina undergo a procedure called a colposcopy. The doctor found a lesion on the cervix and performed a biopsy, which is the removal of a sample of the damaged tissue for diagnosis.
“Two weeks later,” comments Cristina, “the doctor had my husband and me come in for the results. She told us that the lesion was due to an infection with human papillomavirus and that it was in an advanced stage. She explained the risk of the infection becoming cervical cancer and the need to begin treatment immediately.
“Upon hearing the diagnosis, I began to cry. It was a shock to both my husband and me. A small surgery was scheduled for the following day. That afternoon I felt very sad and worried. I asked myself, ‘Why me?’”
Having read that the virus is sexually transmitted, Cristina could not understand how she had been infected. Both she and her husband have always respected the Bible’s high moral principles.
A Common Infection
The fact is, millions of women in the world are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)—considered the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this infection is the primary risk factor in the development of cervical cancer.*
Many hundreds of thousands of cases of HPV are diagnosed in the world annually, and each year many thousands of women die from cervical cancer, which is a consequence of the infection. HPV is a major cause of death from cancer in women in developing countries. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common type of uterine cancer. No wonder WHO calls HPV “a global public health problem”! What else should we know about this virus?
Human papillomavirus is responsible for warts in both men and women, including genital warts, called condyloma acuminata. These are generally benign, or noncancerous. Although there are over a hundred types of HPV, only a few can be carcinogenic, that is, cancerous. It is only the persistent infection with certain types of HPV that causes cervical cancer. On the other hand, most HPV infections disappear spontaneously, being overcome by the body’s immune system.
Principally at risk are women who are sexually active early in life, who have multiple male sexual partners, or who are having intercourse with a male partner who has had multiple sexual partners. It is often a man with no outward symptoms who transmits the HPV infection to his mate.
However, in some cases women who lead morally clean lives or perhaps have never engaged in sexual relations contract the infection. For example, some recent studies indicate that the virus can be transmitted at birth from a mother to her child or that a person may be infected by a source other than the mother. The disease can become evident even many years after the person has been infected.
How to Determine Infection
If you are a woman, you may be asking yourself, ‘How can I know if I am infected with HPV?’ This is an important question because the disease generally does not cause symptoms. Thus, as in Cristina’s case mentioned at the outset, the fundamental step is to have a cytological exam of the cervix, called a Pap smear, or Papanicolaou smear.*
To do the test, a clinician uses a scraper or a brush to take a small sample of the cells of the cervix and sends the cells to a laboratory. The test can reveal if there is infection, inflammation, or abnormal cells. It is reported that Pap smears have reduced cervical cancer mortality and morbidity rates.
WHO claims: “Early detection of precancerous lesions through cytological screening has been and, most probably, will remain for quite some time the mainstay for global control of the disease.” If the results of this test are unsatisfactory, a colposcopy is done using an apparatus with a magnifying lens to observe the affected area. By this means it can be determined if there is a lesion. If there is, a biopsy is taken, and treatment is started.
Nowadays, even more sophisticated laboratory tests can be done. These determine with much greater certainty the presence of disease.
Treatment and Prevention
There are several treatments that can control HPV infection. Specialists use topical treatments. Some of these destroy the cells containing the virus, and others stimulate the immune system. Additional techniques involve removing the damaged or infected area using electrosurgery, laser surgery, or cryosurgery. Yet, rather than having to deal with treatment, how much better it would be if the infection could be avoided. How can that be done?
A couple of years ago, a symposium was held in Mexico City on the subject “Cervical Cancer and HPV in the New Millennium.” Dr. V. Cecil Wright, the Canadian guest lecturer and expert on HPV, advised: “Do not have intercourse until you are married.” Dr. Alex Ferenczy, a professor of pathology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, likewise said: “To prevent cervical cancer . . . , mutual monogamy must be championed.”
So people who have lived in harmony with the moral principles of the Bible are less likely to suffer the cancer-related form of HPV infection. This is because the Bible condemns sexual relations outside of marriage, encourages faithfulness between marriage mates, and exhorts Christians to marry only someone who follows these same principles.—1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4.
Still, education is essential, since HPV infection can usually be prevented. Moreover, even when the infection appears and advances, it can be treated successfully. In fact, WHO recognizes: “If cervical cancer is detected in an initial asymptomatic stage it is nearly always curable.”
In addition to moral education, it is important for women to become informed about the disease and to understand the importance of having such tests as the Pap smear done regularly.* If a problem is detected, a woman can get medical care. Regarding having a proper attitude toward such care, Dr. Montserrat Flores, a specialist in colposcopy, notes: “If a woman knows the magnitude of her problem, she can avoid going to two dangerous extremes: one, not assigning proper importance to the disease and not following through with medical care, which can result in cancer, and the other, becoming a victim of cancer phobia and submitting to unnecessary surgical procedures.”
Science continues to seek more effective and economical methods of detecting HPV. Additionally, vaccines are being developed both to prevent this infection and to treat it.
Although the results of Cristina’s last exam were satisfactory, she still goes for a colposcopy every six months. After having learned much about her illness, she concludes: “Even if we carry HPV, there is much we can do to keep ourselves healthy.”
The name has been changed.
The cervix, or neck of the uterus, is the lower, narrow part between the vagina and the uterus, or womb, of a woman.
Named after the Greek physician George N. Papanicolaou, who designed the method of staining smears of the cells for observation.
According to the National Cancer Institute of the United States, these tests should begin at the age of 18 or the start of sexual activity.
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Measures Women Wisely Take
Women should have regular Pap smears, they should not use tobacco, and they should eat a healthful diet. Such a diet would be rich in vegetables, fruit, and cereals. Some studies have suggested that consumption of carotenes, vitamins A, C, and E, and folic acid may reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
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A Deadly Virus
Human papillomavirus (HPV), considered the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, is a major cause of cervical cancer in developing countries. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common type of uterine cancer.
© Science VU/NCI/Visuals Unlimited
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Dr. George Papanicolaou, who developed the Pap smear