Scientists need to develop a more potent vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the virus that causes Cervical Cancer since the current vaccine may not be effective against some types of the viruses found in Africa and Asia.
As a result, a group of researchers led by Ms. Agnes Omire, a Tutorial Fellow from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has recommended that health facilities encourage women to test for HPV during their routine pap smear tests, something that has not been happening
The researchers set out to investigate the most common types of HPV in East Africa given that it is one of the high-risk regions with most cases of Cervical Cancer. The study which was published in the Biomedical Research International Journal in June 2020 was titled Cervical Dysplasia Infection and Phytogeny of the HPV among HIV infected and HIV Uninfected Women at a Referral Hospital in Nairobi Kenya.
Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of death among reproductive women globally. With this in mind, many countries including Kenya have rolled out vaccination programmes for girls aged between nine and fifteen, as a prevention measure against HPV. But is this effective in lowering the high mortality rates in Africa?
There are over 100 types of HPV. While some of these are low risk, others are high risk and tend to progress to cancer. The researchers found out that even though the most common strain of HPV is type 16, some women carried other strains namely 35, 26 and 73. Now with the vaccine containing only type 16 and 18, it means that other cancer-causing strains are yet to be addressed.
HPV is transmitted sexually or through skin to skin contact and can lie dormant in the body for up to 30 years before progressing to cancer. Although anyone can develop head or neck cancer from this virus, women are more prone to develop the deadly cervical cancer and therefore need regular tests.
Based on the findings of the study, Omire advises that from the age of 21, women should include HPV testing whenever they go for regular pap smear tests. This is because pap smear tests may turn out normal yet there is underlying HPV which could reveal high likelihood of cancer. If detected early, cervical cancer is treatable, she says.
The study which she conducted together with researchers from Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) hopes to spur scientists from Africa to create vaccines that cater for the HPV strains prevalent in Africa since the current ones in use are from America whose genotypes are different from those found in Africa.
Ms. Omire who holds a Masters in Genetics, and is currently pursuing a PhD in the same field at JKUAT is passionate about her research, and believes that “Us, as African scientists, can achieve more if we do not limit our minds”.
Other researchers who collaborated with her in the study were Prof. Nancy Budambula (Embu University), Dr. Raphael Lwembe, and Dr. Leah Kirumbi (both from KEMRI). The study was carried out at the Kenyatta National and Referral Hospital in Nairobi.