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Five Facts You Should Know About HIV and Cervical Cancer

December 2, 2014 3 minute Read by by Andrea Kirsten-Coleman

Women living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer than HIV-negative women. Here are five facts that you should know about the link between the two diseases:

Women living with HIV are four-to-five-times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer

HIV weakens the immune system, and reduces the body's ability to fight infections, including infections that could lead to cervical cancer. Consequently HIV-positive women have a high prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer.

Antiretroviral therapy has not reduced the incidence of cervical cancer

As antiretroviral therapy (ART) has become more prevalent, the quality of life of HIV-positive women has improved significantly, the number of children born with HIV infection has been reduced, and the number of deaths from AIDS has declined. The expansion of ART (made possible largely by funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria) has resulted in an HIV-infected female population that is living longer, and therefore more susceptible to cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a major cause of death in women

Approximately 274,000 of the half a million women who develop cervical cancer annually around the world will die from the disease. Eighty-five percent of these deaths will occur in women in developing countries. Cervical cancer is the second-most-common cancer in women globally, and accounts for 13 percent of all female cancers. Most cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in women who are over 40 years old in developed countries. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, women in their 20s and 30s are now succumbing to the disease. In 2014, the number of deaths from cervical cancer has surpassed deaths from maternal conditions globally.

Cervical cancer is preventable

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a primary cause of cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls with three doses of HPV vaccine between the ages of 9 and 13 has been shown to reduce the risk of them getting cervical cancer in later years by 70 percent. For every 1,000 girls vaccinated, 13 lives are saved according to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

Cervical cancer is treatable

Regular screening can help reduce the prevalence of cervical cancer. In the developed world cervical cancer is usually detected through screening using an annual Pap smear test. In resource-limited countries, low cost screening techniques such as Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) and treatment of precancerous lesions with cryotherapy have achieved much success. With VIA, household vinegar is applied to the cervix to reveal the lesions. When found, precancerous lesions are frozen with notorious oxide or carbon dioxide in a single visit approach – a procedure called cryotherapy.

Andrea Kirsten-Coleman is program manager, communications, development and partner outreach for Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.

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