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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Greater understanding of HPV in UAE may help reduce cervical cancer cases

HPV, which is often transmitted sexually, is the main cause of cervical cancer, which globally claims the lives of 800 women per day.
Dr Sameh Azazy says pap smears are essential in making an early diagnosis and treating HPV. Delores Johnson / The National
Dr Sameh Azazy says pap smears are essential in making an early diagnosis and treating HPV. Delores Johnson / The National

ABU DHABI // Doctors want to see a greater awareness and vaccinations among Emiratis to deter a common virus that can lead to the second most common cancer in the UAE.

Human papillomavirus (HPV), which is often transmitted sexually, is present in about 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s population at some point in their lives and for 90 per cent of people their immune system will fight off the virus. However, women in the other 10 per cent are at risk of the virus developing into cervical cancer if undetected or left untreated. Globally, cervical cancer claims the lives of 800 women every day.

According to Abu Dhabi Health Authority, the cancer is also the seventh highest cause of death of women in the UAE.

Dr Saad Ghazal Aswad, head of the gynaecological oncology department at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said that, while HPV was not as common here as it is in America and Europe, the number of cases was definitely on the rise and that 70 per cent of these arrived at hospital only after cervical cancer was already in an advanced state, which reduced survival rates.

Dr Aswad, who has dedicated his life to educating the public and raising awareness of cervical cancer, said: “Seventy per cent come in advanced stages due to a lack of awareness, screening, prevention and lack of education. Even if you have cancer, with early screening we can tackle it at the early stages.”

About 40 per cent of cancer patients at Tawam Hospital are Emiratis and up to 40 per cent of those were diagnosed with cervical cancer. Yet these figures, he said on the sidelines of a media talk on cervical cancer organised by Roche Diagnostics Middle East, did not reflect the true extent of the problem, because many Emiratis opted for treatment abroad.

Dr Aswad said that with HPV screening available, it was disheartening to see so many people suffering from cervical cancer. “With proper HPV screening, cervical cancer could be prevented,” he said. Dr Aswad called on the Government to introduce a system of HPV screening “where a doctor knows how to screen and what the results mean. All sexually active women should be screened”, he said.

But Dr Nazura Siddiqi, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecologist at Bareen International Hospital, disagreed with the idea of screening, saying instead that vaccinations were a better idea.

“HPV is the commonest STD in the world and it goes away most of the time on its own,” she said.

“It doesn’t make sense to screen for HPV because, with about 60 to 70 per cent of women, the virus will be present, but if you check again in six month’s time, it will be gone.”

Dr Siddiqi said that more important than screening was the HPV vaccination, which is ­offered free by Haad.

One other way of screening women is for them to have regular pap smears, a method of cervical screening used to detect cancer.

Dr Vera Beni, a gynaecologist at women’s hospital Brightpoint Royal, said that her patients were shocked when she explained to them what a pap test was.

The doctor, from Bosnia, said: “In Europe, it is a routine test for all women. In Bosnia, my mother gets a letter that if she doesn’t get her pap test done then she will be fined. Here, I need to explain what a pap test is.”

Dr Sameh Azazy, of Well Care Medical Centre, said a pap smear was a simple, painless and quick procedure where cells are scraped from the cervix. He said many people had died as a result of neglecting tohave the test. “The point is, early diagnosis and follow-up saves lives,” Dr Azazy said.

Dr Bani said a regular pap smear should be mandatory. “We need rules for mandatory regular pap smears. A woman needs to come back for a pap smear every three to five years,” she said.

There are more than 100 strains of HPV, each identified by a number. Types 16, 18, 31, 33 and 45 cause cervical cancer.

salnuwais@thenational.ae