In Kenya, 15 per cent of women have had sex by age 15 (Photo: Courtesy)

KOGS, the body of specialist obstetricians and gynaecologists practicing in Kenya, through its president Dr Kireki Omanwa, is assuring parents “that the vaccine is safe and that it is the surest way to protect girls from cervical cancer.”

The launch of the HPV vaccine in October 2019 was led by President Uhuru Kenyatta. “Let us not fight science,” the president said as he witnessed the first girls in the country get vaccinated.

The launch had followed a successful HPV Vaccine pilot program in Kitui County in 2013, which informed the countrywide rollout.

In the first year, girls aged 10 were the target. But now girls aged 10 to 15 are also allowed to get the vaccine.

In a 2019 interview with this reporter, Cecilia Mwangi, former Miss Kenya title holder said she got the jab herself. “I knew of the vaccine in 2012 when a close relative succumbed to cervical cancer. I decided to get the jab because I believe all women are exposed to the virus,” she said.

In Kenya, 15 per cent (women) and 21 per cent (men) have had sex by age 15.

The vaccine, Dr Odongo says, is best given before sexual debut. Results of a study by Cancer Research UK (United Kingdom), released in November 2021, showed dramatic reductions in cervical cancer rates brought about by the vaccine.

The study found reduction in cervical cancer rates of 34 per cent for those who got the vaccine aged 16–18, 62 per cent for the ones jabbed at 14–16 years, and 87 per cent for those injected aged 12–13, compared with unvaccinated cohorts.

The data shows less impact when the vaccine is received at an older age. This may be because one could already have been sexually active, Dr Odongo says.

“That is why the vaccine targets young girls – chances are that they haven’t been exposed to the virus yet,” he says.

The vaccine makes the body produce antibodies against the virus: clearing it off upon infection.

“All women of reproductive age can actually get the vaccine. The only challenge is that less protection is generated against the virus when infection has already taken place.

“Vaccine effectiveness is therefore dependent on whether infection has already happened, and how long one has had the virus.”

According to Dr Odongo, human papilloma viruses are so widespread and common that many females become exposed on their first sexual encounter.

HPV causes cancer by changing the genetic make-up of healthy cells over 15 to 20 years according to world health organisation (WHO). In women with weakened immune systems – such as those with untreated HIV – it can take only 5 to 10 years.

The virus is spread through vaginal, oral and anal sex. It has also been linked to other cancers: anus, penis and some head and neck cancers.