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Cervical Cancer is the second leading cause of death amongst women in Nigeria.

Cervical Cancer: Fighting a Callous Killer Through Early Vaccination

By Rahma Olamide Oladosu

Cervical cancer develops in a woman’s cervix (the entrance to the uterus from the vagina). It is a dreaded, life-threatening disease which according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) is the fourth most common cancer in women globally, with around 660 000 new cases in 2022. In the same year, about 94% of the 350,000 deaths caused by cervical cancer occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

Though a dangerous killer, cervical cancer is very avoidable as it is a vaccine-preventable disease. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer worldwide are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted mostly through sex. Infection with HPV can be headed off by a simple one-dose jab of a revolutionary vaccine.

Just recently and with great concern, global health donors pledged nearly $600 million towards eliminating cervical cancer at the first global forum dedicated to fighting the disease. The new funding from governments, donors, multilateral institutions, and partners includes $180m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $10m from the United Nations Children’s Fund and $400m from the World Bank.

According to a WHO statement, if the ambitions to expand vaccine coverage and strengthen screening and treatment programmes are fully realised, the world could eliminate cancer for the first time.

These commitments were made at a forum titled: ‘Global Cervical Cancer Elimination Forum: Advancing the Call to Action’ in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. It was meant to catalyse national and global momentum to end this preventable disease. The heartfelt commitments announced at the forum mark a watershed moment to accelerate progress on a promise made in 2020 when 194 countries adopted WHO’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer.

Sadly, in Nigeria, cervical cancer is the third most common cancer and the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths among women aged between 15 and 44 years. In 2020 – the latest year for which data is available – the country recorded 12,000 new cases and 8,000 deaths from cervical cancer. Before now, health system constraints, costs, logistical issues, lack of awareness and political will have created obstacles to the implementation of comprehensive programmes for cervical cancer prevention and treatment in Nigeria.

The Tinubu administration has taken serious steps in making sure that young girls between the ages of 9–14 receive a single dose of the vaccine, which is highly efficacious in preventing infection with HPV types 16 and 18 that are known to cause at least 70% of cervical cancers.

Speaking on this development, the Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Professor Muhammad Ali Pate, said: “The loss of about 8000 Nigerian women yearly from a disease that is preventable is completely unacceptable.

“Cervical cancer is mostly caused by HPV, and parents can avoid physical and financial pain by protecting their children with a single dose of the vaccine. Saving lives, producing quality health outcomes and protecting the wellbeing of Nigerians are central to the Renewed Health Agenda of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.”

“Also, a five-day mass vaccination campaign in schools and communities was carried out during the inaugural rollout in 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory. And with the vaccine already incorporated in routine immunisation schedules within health facilities, the second phase of the vaccination introduction is set to start in May 2024 in 21 states.”

“The onset of the vaccination campaign is an opportunity to safeguard our girls from the scourge of cervical cancers many years into the future. As a parent myself, I have four daughters, all of them have had the same HPV vaccine to protect them against cervical cancer. I would like to implore fellow parents to dutifully ensure that this generation of our girls disrupt the preventable loss of lives to cervical cancer in addition to other untold hardship, loss, and pain.”

The vaccine is being generously provided for free by the Federal Ministry of Health through the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) with support from GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners.

To cushion these efforts, over 35,000 health workers have so far been trained in preparation for the campaign and subsequent vaccine delivery in all health facilities.
Vaccination sites were also established in all 4,163 wards across the 16 states included in the phase one rollout to ensure no eligible girl is left behind. Mobile vaccination units have also been set up to ensure that remote communities can access the vaccine.

Dr. Walter Kazadi Mulombo, WHO Representative in Nigeria while commending the health minister and the entire ministry said, “this is a pivotal moment in Nigeria’s efforts to lower the burden of cervical cancer – one of the few cancers which can potentially be eliminated through vaccination and we are committed to supporting the government increase access to the HPV vaccine to protect the health and well-being of the next generation of women.”

President Tinubu and Professor Pate dream of a vibrant economy in which everyone – both boys and girls – are able to contribute their quota and thrive irrespective of gender and where they come from. But that will remain a dream if a constant killer like cervical cancer is allowed to keep wasting the precious lives of our future queens. It is better to prevent it now with vaccination than fight it in the future with medication.