What's the story behind the Muslim world's success in preventing cervical cancer?

What's the story behind the Muslim world's success in preventing cervical cancer?

What's the story behind the Muslim world's success in preventing cervical cancer?
Health & Fitness


Image courtesy of Doctor Gaël Abou Ghannam/Instagram

Editor’s Note: For those of you who may not be aware, January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and since there’s nothing that makes our aunties squirm more than “down there” chats, we figured we’d up the ante and sit you down for this supremely important “down there” conversation!  

Let’s get one thing out in the open, right off the bat: Pap smears, or Pap tests, no matter how awkward they may be, are imperative to ensure women maintain their health. They are done to screen for signs of cervical cancer, and early detection can be the difference between life and death. Doctors generally recommend repeating Pap tests every three years for women between the ages of 21 to 65. Normally conducted in conjunction with a pelvic exam, a brush is used to obtain cells from the cervix (the narrow passage between the uterus and the vagina), and those cells are analyzed for signs of change or abnormalities. Routine Pap smears catch cells that are transforming to become cancer-prone, so that early interventions, by excision or ablation, can remove those cells and allow for healthy cells to take their place.

A Pap smear is a routine gynecological procedure, but many women do not know its significance. This is particularly true about women in the Middle East, where Pap smears aren’t a routine procedure, and for a significant reason. Many Muslim-majority countries have not had national campaigns for cervical cancer prevention as other nations have. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that this lapse could boil down to cultural stigmas affecting how we approach women’s bodies in broader societal norms, owing to the sexualization of the female form.

Yet, despite this lack of a national conversation surrounding cervical cancer, an intriguing pattern seems to have emerged. It appears that countries with majority Muslim populations are less affected by cervical cancer than countries like Canada and Australia. Whereas Muslim majority countries certainly aren’t protected from the likes of other cancers, what is so unique about cervical cancer that Muslim dominant populations seem less affected by it?

Turns out, it may come down to the practice of our religion. It’s important for Muslim women to know that, according to research, Islam’s approach to sex puts them at a very low risk of developing cervical cancer.

To further understand this idea, we need to delve into what causes cervical cancer. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Whereas some strains of HPV cause irritating warts, others are much more dangerous and can cause life-threatening cancer, which has a mortality rate of 52%. HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus, thus the risk factors for developing cervical cancer include intercourse at a young age, multiple sexual partners, high-risk sexual partners, and a history of other sexually-transmitted infections, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV.

HIV can exacerbate an HPV infection due to the immunosuppression it causes, probably being the cause of high cervical cancer incidences in HIV endemic areas. Since this cancer is heavily reliant on the sexual behaviors of the individual within a society, religious observance, particularly for Muslims who believe in celibacy until marriage, can prove to be protective against this cancer.

Data showing the rates of cervical cancer in young women between the ages of 20 and 39 prove that many Muslim dominant nations are protected from this disease. The rate is highest in Southern Africa (27.7 per 100,000) and Central America (23.0 per 100,000), and is lowest in Northern Africa (1.9 per 100,000) and Western Asia (2.3 per 100,000), where the populations are majority Muslim. This attests to the fact that Muslims may be less affected by cervical cancer if they practice the Islamic recommendation of abstaining from sex before marriage, and practice safe sex after marriage.

Whereas I am advocating abstinence from sexual relations before marriage as a way to protect yourself from cervical cancer, in accordance with Islamic teachings, I also want to point out that even if we analyze a sample of only Muslims, the incidences of cervical cancer will never be zero because we live in an imperfect world. Sex before marriage, prostitution, adultery, and having multiple sexual partners is an absolute reality in every culture and society. Therefore, Pap smears remain a necessity for Muslim women. It is imperative that we put aside cultural stigmas surrounding the female body, and take charge of our health by getting Pap smears as recommended by worldwide medical guidelines. 

We need to foster a love for Islam, and teach Islamic wisdom to our children and youth, but not create skepticism of medical practice, as that is also based on data and rationality. Safe sex, in accordance with Islamic values, and regular Pap smears, as recommended by the medical community are surely the best ways to protect yourself against cervical cancer. 

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