HPV pilot programme sees growing interest from women

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By Carlena Knight

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Almost 150 HPV tests have been administered under the new pilot programme which was launched just three weeks ago.

The latest initiative – a partnership with PAHO – has offered the public the opportunity to benefit from a new high-performance test, aside from pap smears.

Chairperson of the Cervical Cancer Task Force Dr Cherie Tulloch, gave the figure while speaking on the Observer AM show yesterday.

“We have so far done probably close to 150 in three weeks. This is 20 percent, and that’s just HPV testing; I have not included in that number the pap smears. We have significantly increased our screening capacity in the public system just by launching the HPV testing for screening,” Dr Tulloch explained.

This, she said, is great news for her group, as they vigorously work towards eliminating cervical cancer in Antigua and Barbuda.

Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which affects both males and females who are sexually active.

Cases of patients with cervical cancer in Antigua and Barbuda are increasing, according to healthcare professionals, and those recorded at the Oncology Department at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre have doubled in the last two years.

It is the fifth leading cause of death in cancer patients – both male and female – and the third leading cause of death in women in the twin-island state.

According to Dr Tulloch, the most diagnosed cases are in pre-retirement age — below 60 years old.

These increasing numbers, Nurse Valerie Williams, NCD Coordinator in the Ministry of Health stated, are due to a number of factors, the most common being that not enough women are being screened.

“We are not screening enough, most often or not it is asymptomatic; women have no symptoms at all, so you just figure that all is well until that last moment when there is some excessive bleeding, or some persons end up with some painful sexual experiences, or some foul smelling vaginal discharge, and it is only then that they say ‘this is not normal for me, let me go and have it checked’, and by then, it’s too late because only like 13 percent of women get diagnosed at a stage one. So, too many persons are showing up too late,” Nurse Williams said.

Fear of the outcome is another reason.

According to Dr Tulloch, less than 50 percent of women have been screened.

She is however encouraging women to get tested.

“I am not worried about the woman in front of me, I am worried about the woman I do not see. We are not doing screenings to pick up cancer, we are trying to pick up the changes before cancer and treat it so that we don’t have to have the cancer conversation, and I don’t want women to be scared because some of the symptoms that Nurse Williams spoke about overlap with other things that are not cancer.

“Fibroids will give you heavy bleeding, endometriosis will cause you to have painful sex, and an infection will cause a foul-smelling discharge. However, if you are not seeing your doctor, you will not know, and no matter what stage you come to us at, we are aiming for the cure, but the ability to achieve that cure is less, the more advanced the cancer is.

“We will do our absolute best but the ability to achieve that cure and to keep someone disease free for a longer period of time is harder if you are more advanced at presentation,” Dr Tulloch said.

Women can register at the All Saints, Browne’s Avenue, Clare Hall, Grays Farm and Jennings clinics to have those screenings done.

Each clinic has the capacity to register up to 50 patients per month.

Online registration is also available through the Medical Benefits Scheme (MBS) and Ministry of Health, Wellness and Environment Facebook pages.

The project will target 1,500 women between the ages of 30 and 49 over a six-month period. That number accounts for 11.6 percent of women who have not currently been tested for HPV.

To meet the criteria, women must have not received cervical screening in the last three years, have had abnormal screening in the last three years, have no history of hysterectomy, and are not currently pregnant.

Antigua and Barbuda is the first country in the Eastern Caribbean to implement HPV testing as part of its national cervical cancer prevention program.

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