The city of Johannesburg has joined forces with South Africa’s Department of Basic Education and the Department of Health to tackle the spread of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) among schoolgirls.
City health workers will be visiting 520 schools in all seven regions of Johannesburg to provide vaccines to girls aged between nine and 12 years.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that are extremely common worldwide. But of the more than 100 types of HPV, at least 14 are cancer-causing. Cervical cancer, for example, is caused by sexually acquired infection with certain types of HPV.
Member of the mayoral committe for health and social development, Mpho Phalatse said the cases of teenage pregnancy in the city were a clear indication that girls were starting to have sex at a younger age and were not using protection — making them more vulnerable to HPV.
Phalatse’s statement is supported by the South African Medical Journal’s report analysing when people start having sex — which found that girls are generally starting at 16 years old.
But children as young as 11 are believed to have been coerced into having sex by adults or older adolescents, according to the report.
“The period just after a woman’s sexual debut is known to be the peak time for infection, it is extremely important that we immunise our girls against HPV before they even start having sex,” said Phalatse.
As well as unwanted pregnancies, having unprotected sex exposes girls to a variety of sexually transmitted infections.
About 40 types of HPV are sexually transmitted. Two types, 16 and 18, are considered to be high risk by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The high risk types of HPV are estimated to cause 70% of cervical cancers in the world and those that aren’t high risk can cause genital warts, the WHO added.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among South African women. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa, one in every 42 women are at risk of getting cervical cancer in their lifetime.
The World Health Organisation also says that an estimated 570,000 new cases were diagnosed worldwide in 2018.
For the 30 million South Africans living in poverty, cancer treatment is very hard to access. There is a shortage of oncology healthcare staff in the public healthcare sector as they are required to service more than 75% of the population, according to the South African Medical Journal.
The campaign by the city of Johannesburg is aimed at reducing the incidence of cervical cancer through the introduction of the vaccine before the girls are exposed to infection
The vaccine is administered in two doses — the first dose (HPV1) took place from February to March this year, and the second dose (HPV2) started on August 6.
While the vaccine is offered free in schools, parents are urged to give their permission by signing a consent form.
“We urge parents of Grade 4 girl children aged nine years and above to cooperate with us and give the necessary consent for their girls to receive this life-saving intervention,” said Phalatse.
The city hopes that about 30,000 learners will be vaccinated by the end of September.
Phalatse said: “It would be a serious indictment on us as government and parents if even a single one of these young ones is one day diagnosed with this now perfectly preventable condition.”