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New PCR HPV test launched aims to reduce levels of cervical cancer in Belize

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2022. 5:20 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: A new test that can be administered to women by themselves to detect human papillomavirus (HPV) is now available at public health facilities countrywide, courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

The Ministry is encouraging especially women between 25 to 65 years of age and particularly those who have either never done cervical cancer screening or been last tested more than three years ago to come in now. Cervical cancer is preventable through the HPV vaccine and regular screening and is curable when detected early.

Up to 80 percent of all Belizeans carry HPV, but only among women does it potentially develop into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is slow-developing and is the second most common type of cancer among women. Belize lands among the highest mortality rate in the Caribbean for its population due to cervical cancer, which in 2020 claimed 28 lives amid 35 new cases.

Dr Marcelo Coyi, gynecologist/obstetrician at Belize Medical Associates (BMA), explained during a press call this morning that while sexually active women should be medically screened not only for cancers but for other diseases, the effects of the virus mostly begin showing up after age 25. If the virus shows up in a pap smear, screening will be sped up but only certain types of the virus will evolve into cervical cancer.

“If a test that is done is negative, we say, ‘Get out of the line, rest yourself for three to five years and come back for re-testing.’ If it’s positive then we do other examinations to see if the HPV is causing any change in the cells of the cervix – if it’s not causing any change, we say you are not at risk, and only those that are identified with high-risk lesions, we treat those lesions before they become cancer,” said Dr Coyi.

The new test is more scientifically reliable and detects the problematic “agent” in cervical cells using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, similar to COVID-19 (it involves a six-inch swab pushed into the vagina and rubbed across the cervical area to get the cells and placed into a dry tube) and better than the pap smear method. You are most likely if high-risk and not tested, to develop cancer in your forties and fifties, with a lifespan of up to five years after detection.

“That is one of the visions of this program – if we want to eliminate it, we need to begin to do the testing at an earlier phase, rather than a later phase,” Dr Coyi said. He already uses the test at his practice but its cost is around 300 dollars. For now, the Ministry’s professionals at public health facilities will oversee tests with a seven-day turnaround for results compared to months for a pap smear.

Dr Natalia Beer, Ministry of Health specialist in child and maternal care, noted that the disease is stigmatized and so women often wait too long to get screened and catch the virus if at high risk.

“This is one more of the public health interventions from the Ministry of Health and colleagues in the private sector, improving women’s health…the objective is for us to pick up high-risk HPV viruses in women and provide them the health care that they need,” she concluded.

 

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