Ahead of World Cancer Day (February 4), the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for accelerated action to eliminate cervical cancer, a preventable disease that kills more than 300,000 women every year.
Cervical cancer ranks among leading causes of death for women worldwide. Nine in 10 deaths occur in poor and middle-income countries. The disease is caused by the human papillomavirus and is transmitted through sexual contact.
The WHO says cervical cancer can be cured if the infection is diagnosed and treated at an early stage. But, as with some ailments in life, prevention is the best cure. And, in the case of cervical cancer, an effective vaccine is available that can prevent the disease when given to girls between the ages of nine and 14.
The WHO’s Immunization Program technical officer, Paul Bloem, says the vaccine is widely administered in rich countries. While countries with the highest burden of cervical cancer in Africa and Asia are lagging behind, he says progress is being made.
“In countries, such as Rwanda, a trailblazer in Africa, that reaches over 90 percent since five, six years. Bhutan, that reaches also 90 percent of its girls. Malaysia, that reaches 97 percent of its girls. So, there are some extremely good examples that show that this vaccine is accepted and can be delivered in low-income settings,” he said.
Bloem says four countries in Africa - Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Senegal - introduced the vaccine last year. He says 11 more countries in Africa and Asia will start using it next year.
Princess Nothemba Simelela, WHO Assistant Director-General for Family, Women, Children and Adolescents, says a big problem in developing countries is the lack of skilled people to test and diagnose cervical cancer in women.
She says that women in remote, rural areas often have difficulty reaching clinics where they can be tested and treated for the disease. But she told VOA there are strategies governments can employ to overcome that.
“We can have mobile outreach clinics. Sometimes, what you have is days on which women can be called or young girls can be brought in, specifically to get this attention,” she said.
Simelela says another strategy that governments can employ is to use school health programs. For instance, she says, Rwanda and South Africa bring the vaccine into the schools where access is available to the largest number of girls in the age groups that need to be reached.