Covid heightened risk of cervical cancer, warns NGO

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has put women at higher risk of developing cervical cancer due to its impact on primary health care.

Community development NGO Rhiza Babuyile (RB) said South Africa needs to play catch-up in offering reproductive health care to thousands of women who were unable to access it during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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“As September is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we would like to remind women that proactive and preventative reproductive health care is the best way to fight this disease,” said Katlego Assis, special projects manager at RB.

The most effective way to prevent cervical cancer is vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) and regular age-appropriate screening.

The organisation urged women aged 30 to get Pap smears and young girls from age 10 to access the HPV vaccine.

“Many women were unable to access certain services because of lockdown restrictions during the first two years of the pandemic. At the same time, health-care facilities were inundated with Covid-19 response services, so resources for cervical cancer prevention and treatment have been affected. The fire at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, for instance, has directly affected its oncology facilities,” said Assis.

Assis added that the organisation wanted to dispel the misconception that cancer is a disease that only affects white people or non-black people, as cancer is prevalent across ethnic groups and affects poor communities as much as it does others.

According to the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa), cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer among women in South Africa. The disease has an incidence rate in South Africa of between 22.8 and 27 per 100 000 women.

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Thandi Mgcina, the health-care manager for RB’s Diepsloot Mobile Clinic, said every woman of 30 years old and above must do Pap smears once every five years, while those with HIV should do it at least annually.

“Pap smears are not just for those who have just given birth, as per the common misconception. It should be part of every woman’s general health check-up regime,” said Assis.

Assis added that even women who are considered healthy are not exempt from the risk of developing cervical cancer.

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The NGO further urged the public to look out for common symptoms of the disease on themselves and loved ones.

According to Cansa, these include abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, continuous vaginal discharge, longer and heavier menstrual periods, bleeding and pain during sexual intercourse, increased urinary frequency and vaginal bleeding after menopause.

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