By Professor Albert Singer
Sexual abuse has devastating consequences for victims and their families both in the short and long term. This has been highlighted most recently in the UK by the high profile failure to protect young girls from sexual abuse and exploitation in Rotherham. The scale of the abuse is shocking but it should also be ringing alarm bells for those in the medical profession.
The type of abuse that these young women underwent will render them not only emotionally vulnerable, but will also expose them to potentially lethal long term consequences. Tragically they will have an increased risk throughout their lives of developing cancer of the cervix, of other lower genital tract organs and certain head and neck malignancies.
All these cancers are caused by the acquisition of a sexually transmitted virus, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and this in turn is related to multiple sexual partners and early age onset of sexual activity. We know that in the Rotherham case, these unfortunate 1,400 girls and young women were abused from as early as 11 years of age by multiple predators. I am certain that many of them will already have evidence of precancerous changes in the cervix, which can be easily diagnosed by a smear or a viral test and then be successfully treated.
The present NHS guidelines recommend commencing screening for cervix cancer at age 25 but I believe that this group is at such high risk that they should be screened as a matter of some urgency. It may be that some of them have already received the HPV vaccine but many of them would have been exposed to the virus before the vaccine became available, or before they were eligible to be given it.
Unfortunately the development of cancer if these precancerous changes are not detected will occur at increasing frequency throughout their lives. They will therefore need to be counselled and kept under medical supervision and this will add increasingly to the already profound emotional trauma these girls have suffered and carry. The same will apply to the wives and partners of the perpetrators who because of their behaviour have put their female partners at the same risk as their victims.
This is unlikely to be an isolated case and there are expected to be more scandals revealed in the near future, such as the allegations that have already surfaced in Sheffield. The medical profession must be extremely sensitive to the long term emotional needs of the young girls and women who have been traumatised by these events. It should also be recognised that the doctors treating the victims must themselves be counselled and advised to be able to effectively deal with this extremely vulnerable group.