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Preventing cervical cancer

The Western Cape Government Health (WCGH) is encouraging parents and caregivers to support its school-based vaccination programme.

From 11 February until 20 March, officials of the department will be visiting public schools to administer the first dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and the tetanus and diphtheria (Td-Diftavax) booster for free. Girls in Grade 5 with the necessary consent, who did not receive the HPV vaccine in 2019, will have a second opportunity to be vaccinated.

In 2014, the HPV vaccine was introduced in South Africa as part of the Integrated School Health Programme. Two HPV injections, five to six months apart, are administered to Grade 5 girls with the necessary consent. This year, boys and girls in Grade 5 over the age of 10-years will be eligible for the Td-Diftavax vaccination to prevent diphtheria outbreaks, and to contribute towards the elimination of tetanus, a serious bacterial infection that causes painful muscle spasms and can lead to death.

HPV, in particular, is an extremely common virus. It is estimated that approximately 80% of women will be infected with it some time in their lives. The virus is responsible for 99% of all cervical cancer cases. Incidence of cervical cancer in South Africa is 1 in 26 women, and due to late presentation it has a high fatality rate. The HPV vaccination is most effective if administered before exposure to it (before puberty and sexual debut) when immune system is able to provide a stronger antibody response. The vaccine is a safe and preventative precaution to cervical cancer.

In 2019, department officials visited 1 112 schools and achieved an 85% first-dose cover. Though HPV vaccination campaigns have previously targeted 9-year-old girls in Grade 4, it was established that some girls are being excluded due to having birthdays later in the year. The National Advisory Group on Immunisation (NAGI) recommended changing the target to Grade 5 girls this year.

Vaccines are administered by qualified professional nurses by injection in the upper arm. Besides tenderness on the injection area there are no other side effects. Health officials cannot administer vaccines and/or conduct general health assessments without the permission of parents or caregivers. It is important they complete the necessary consent forms and submit them to the schools before the officials visit.

For more information on the department’s HPV vaccination programme, visit www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/hpv-vaccinations.

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