More than 65% of South African women are at risk of being infected by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which can later result in the formation of cervical cancer,  a 2010 World Health Organisation report says.

Women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are most at risk of acquiring the HP virus.

Professor Martin Hale, head of anatomical pathology at Wits Medical School, says there has been an increase in HPV-related diseases in South Africa.  He says the HP virus can be overcome.

“There are over a hundred subtypes of the papilloma virus,” Hale says. “But HPV-16 and HPV-18 have been identified as having a link to cervical cancer.”

The papilloma virus can affect the female genital tract once women become sexually active, which potentially results in the formation of cervical cancer.

Hale says regular pap smears help with the identification of HPV, but adds that there is not enough information on HPV around hospitals and on campus.

Emma Griffiths, a 1st year occupational therapy student, says she has not seen any information around campus on cervical cancer or HPV. “I know you’re supposed to get vaccinated [for HPV] when you’re in your teens, and I know the causes of cervical cancer are related to HPV.”

Mia Ndombi, a 3rd year medicine student, says she saw a poster about HPV and cervical cancer. “Basically it was about what you’re entitled to do in terms of getting a pap smear, and checking for those risks when you’ve got an STI.”

A vaccination for HPV is available at pharmacies in South Africa, which Hale says should be given to adolescent girls or women before they become sexually active. He recommends it as a way of lowering the risk of HPV infection.

Cleo Le Roux, a 3rd year medicine student, says that there is scepticism about the vaccination and “it’s expensive, from about R700 up.”.

There are also ethical and religious debates about giving the vaccination to children.