Cervical Cancer and HIV
- Cervical cancer is preventable with the HPV vaccine, and it is curable if detected and treated early.
- Women living with HIV are more at risk of cervical cancer, and are up to five times more likely to develop cervical cancer than women who do not have the virus.
- Cervical Cancer is considered to be an AIDS-defining illness.
- Taking effective HIV treatment and increasing your CD4 count significantly lower your risk of developing cancer.
- It is recommended that women living with HIV have a smear test every year, and from the age of 20, if relevant.
What is Cervical Cancer and what causes it?
Cervical Cancer is caused by some strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), and develops in the cells of a woman’s cervix, which is the opening to the uterus at the top of the vagina (or the neck of the womb).
HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI), usually spread by skin-to-skin contact during sex. If you have ever had sex, you are likely to have come into contact with HPV.
How common is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical Cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women worldwide, and the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the developing world.
Each year, more than 500,000 women will develop cervical cancer worldwide and over half of these women will die of the disease.
In Europe, around 60,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and 30,000 women die from the disease.
In Ireland, about 295 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and over 90 women die.
Most deaths from cervical cancer are preventable, particularly if detected early, highlighting the importance of regular screening.
The risks for HIV-positive women
Women living with HIV are more at risk of cervical cancer, and are up to five times more likely to develop cervical cancer than women who do not have the virus. Cervical cancer is considered to be an AIDS-defining illness.
While HPV infections are very common in the general population and most women with healthy immune systems will clear these infections over time, women with compromised immune systems (such as women with HIV) are far less likely to clear an HPV infection. This means that once they have been infected with HPV, women living with HIV are more likely to develop pre-invasive lesions that can, if left untreated, quickly progress to invasive life-threatening cervical cancer.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends screening and providing adequate treatment to all women living with HIV as soon as they know their status.
The HPV Vaccine
Cervical cancer is preventable with the HPV vaccine.
In Ireland, a HPV vaccine programme for all girls in 1st year of second level schools has been in place since May 2010. The national HPV vaccine programme may be extended to adolescent boys in the future.
In July 2018, the National Immunisation Committee (NIAC) recommended the HPV vaccine for men and women living with HIV up to and including 26 years of age and for all men who have sex with men (MSM), including MSM living with HIV, up to and including 45 years of age.
The vaccine is available through many STI and HIV clinics. Ask a nurse or doctor at your clinic for more information.
Cervical cancer can take a long time to develop and often has no signs or symptoms. Regular screening is the only way to ensure that any abnormal cells in the cervix are detected early and treated early, thereby preventing the development of cervical cancer.
Cervical screening involves a simple test, known as a smear test. The test, which only takes a few minutes, looks for changes in the cells of the cervix and aims to identify these changes before they develop into cervical cancer. A doctor or nurse will take a sample of cells from the cervix, which are then sent to a lab to be examined for abnormalities.
You will generally have your results within 4 weeks of the smear test.
If abnormalities are detected, you will be referred for further investigation. All follow up tests, if required, are also free of charge.
CervicalCheck – Ireland’s National Cervical Screening Programme – provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60 (with some exceptions).
Cervical Screening for Women living with HIV
An annual smear test is recommended for women living with HIV, from the age of 20 years.
This can be provided at your HIV clinic, or you can have the test at your GP practice. Some GPs may not be aware that annual screening is required for women living with HIV, so it is important to be pro-active about this. Don’t wait for a reminder.
Talk to someone at your HIV clinic about annual screening if you are concerned that your GP doesn’t know about your HIV status.
What can I do to reduce my risk of getting cancer?
As people with HIV are now living longer, there is an increased chance of developing cancers generally associated with older age which are not linked to having HIV.
Small changes to your lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of developing cancer – such as improving your diet, getting enough exercise, stopping smoking, cutting down on alcohol, staying at a healthy weight, and avoiding sun damage to your skin.
Make sure to take up routine testing such as screening for cervical, breast or bowel cancer. Starting antiretroviral treatment straight away can also be preventative. Keep taking your HIV treatment and keep your viral load undetectable.
Further information and reading:
HPV Vaccination Information Leaflet for MSM, including MSM living with HIV (published by HSE)
HPV Vaccination Information Leaflet for Men and Women living with HIV (published by HSE)