Cervical cancer remains one of the scariest diseases facing South African women. It’s the second most common cancer among South African women and it’s fatal: of all the cancers, most women in SA die of this cervical cancer.
However, the key to eradicating this disease is maddeningly simple: early detection, in the form of pap smears, can really move the needle away from thousands of deaths a year. But most women prioritise other things, are afraid to be poked and prodded down there, or simply aren’t aware of the stakes at play. One way we can make things better? HPV testing at home! With HPV at-home tests, we can detect one of the most prevalent diseases that come before cervical cancer, while putting off the need to go to the doctor for a full-on Pap Smear, a life-saving solution for many women.
So, what exactly is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It can be spread through sex, skin contact, and even from mother to child. HPV can be innocuous and can present with little to no symptoms, depending on the strain and person. In other cases, warts can appear, that later go away on their own. Even without symptoms, an infected person can spread HPV to another person. The only way to know is through a test.
“HPV can be harmless but can also result in serious illnesses like cervical, anorectal and neck cancer and can result in genital warts,” says Dr Katlego Lekalakala, a medical doctor.
What’s the deal with HPV and cervical cancer?
HPV is the most common precursor to cervical cancer since the infection in some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. This is why regular screening and control of HPV infection is a top priority since early detection can prevent cervical cancer from developing. Moreover, “having HIV also puts you at risk of getting HPV, which puts you at risk for cervical cancer,” says Dr Lekalakala. If you’re sexually active, you need to prioritise taking care of your sexual health, Dr Lekalakala adds. This means going for regular screenings and wearing condoms every time you have sex. “Condoms are not just there to prevent you from having babies, they’re there to protect you from sexually transmitted infections too,” adds Dr Lekalakala.
Doing the at-home HPV test
Zoie Health has come up with at-home HPV tests so that women who are busy or have “white coat anxiety” (fear of having a doctor’s exam) can help themselves out by knowing their HPV status.
It’s important to know that this test doesn’t replace a pap smear, warns Dr Lekalakala. “A doctor does the pap smear and can visualise the cervix and see lesions that require removal and test for HPV and test for cervical cancer,” she explains.
Having said this, the at-home HPV test is a total game-changer. The test kit includes a swab that you can self-administer, as well as a courier bag that can be used to get the specimen to the lab to be tested.
When using the test, it’s very important to wash your hands, wear gloves and not let anything other than your cervical cells touch the swab – this could contaminate the specimen, says Dr Lekalakala. Don’t try to lubricate the test, or put anything on it.
Also, you shouldn’t use the test when you’re pregnant, on your period or within 48 hours of having sex.
“Advance slowly, feel where you’re going – our vaginal canals are not the same,” says Dr Lekalakala. “It will be nice if you have a mirror, inserting the sample until the red line touches the cavity.” Allow the test to twist around the walls so that you get a robust offering of cells. It’s important to get familiar with where your cervix is because your cells need to come from there.