Condoms have been hyped as master-protectors against sexually transmitted infections.
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However, health experts are warning that in as much as condoms significantly decrease transmission rates of the most life-threatening viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, it’s not foolproof.
At a meeting of cancer specialists at the University of Nairobi last week, reproductive health expert, Nelly Mugo, said that even as we take protective measures using condoms against most STIs including HIV/Aids, the rubber sheaths cannot provide 100 per cent protection against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
“Condoms offer 60 per cent of HPV thus the virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas of the skin not covered by the condom such as the scrotum, anus, or vulva,” Dr Mugo said.
Latest Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, shows that male condoms are the most popular method among sexually active unmarried women.
Unmarried men too seem to prefer condoms as the popular method to protect against STIs. But for a virus whose disease has no symptoms, the inefficacy of condoms allows for faster and wider spread, especially amongst those with multiple sex partners.
The only 100 per cent effective way to prevent HPV transmission is abstinence from any sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex.
Since abstinence may not be a realistic option, Dr Mugo advises remaining monogamous while in a relationship, vaccination and screening for women.
Women can also pass viruses without having any symptoms. But the chance of females infecting men is estimated at less than five per cent of the rates of male-to-female transmission. There are more than 100 types of HPV and about 13 of these are cancer causing, with HPV types 16 and 18 causing approximately 70 per cent of all cervical cancers worldwide.
Sadly, it’s physically difficult to tell whether your partner has the HPV virus unless they have genital warts, yet those who do not have visible signs can also spread the virus.
The other interesting aspect of this particular virus is that you do not need to have sex for it to be passed on from one person to another. The virus is found in the flora of the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, or anus of a person who has the HPV. One can get infected through kissing or touching an infected sex organs or through oral sex.
The younger you are when you start having sex, the greater you are at risk of HPV infection.
Since cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among adult women, in the developing world, and the second most common cancer among women worldwide, preventive measures include getting a pap smear for women and/or getting vaccinated.
Better still, it’s important that you be honest with your partner about your sex history.
Immunising all girls before becoming sexually active ideally aged nine to 13 years in order to lower the risk of HPV took off in Kenya under a pilot project in Kitui County about three years ago. It was then targeting 20,000 girls.