As she felt the cold sting of the needle enter her arm, Alice winced in fear more than pain- understandable as she is only 10. However, a moment of pain could save her from the leading cause of cancer death among women in Africa: cervical cancer. She is receiving a vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV), the main gateway agent in cervical cancer.
A new report launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the 68th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa finds that chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes are claiming an increasing number of lives. A person aged 30 to 70 has a one in five chance of dying from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
Alice is from Malawi, where there are more than 4 million women who are aged 15-49 years old. HPV is mainly transmitted through sexual contact and most people are infected with HPV shortly after becoming sexually active.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer, as long as it is detected early and managed effectively. The usual 10-20-year progression from mild dysplasia to carcinoma means regular screenings can help detect cervical cancer in time for effective treatment. The recent availability of the HPV vaccine is also opening up doors to preventing the disease in the first place.
Unfortunately, the majority of women in Africa still do not have access to cervical cancer prevention programmes. The consequence is that, often, cervical cancer is not detected until it is too late to be cured. Most women who die from cervical cancer, particularly in developing countries, are in the prime of their life. They may be raising children, caring for their family, and contributing to the social and economic life of their town or village.
However, WHO is supporting Ministries of Health to change this. Alice was among the young girls aged 9-14 participating in one of two immunization pilot campaigns in Malawi who were given the HPV vaccine in 2014. WHO provided technical support for these campaigns, and Malawi is now planning to scale up immunization. In addition, information on growth and development, menstrual hygiene, sexual health and HIV education will be integrated into vaccine interventions for maximum impact.
WHO continues to support Malawi and many other countries across the Region. For example, WHO has conducted prevention and control training for 10 countries, provided cervical cancer and safe motherhood equipment to Malawi worth over 60,000USD, and produced clear guidance documents.
Dr Eugene Nyarko, the Former WHO Representative to Malawi remarks that "To succeed in the fight WHO has developed specific tool kits in order to reverse the growing burden of cervical cancer in the Region."
Dr. Jean Marie Dangou, Advisor of Cancer and Chronic Diseases at the Organization's African Regional Office said "We must prioritize cancer interventions. Too many young women and men are suffering and dying when primary prevention and control could save them from this terrible fate. WHO-led action on cervical cancer has paved the way for intensified interventions throughout the region."
To galvanize global action, the United Nations Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control is working to take new technologies to scale, reduce the costs of vaccines and use innovative approaches to ensuring women access services. Earlier this year, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a global call for action towards the elimination of cervical cancer.
Although deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like cervical cancer have increased by nearly 30% between 2005 and 2015, countries are still not doing enough to prevent and control NCDs. WHO is supporting countries to develop a multisectoral response, provide technical guidance and build capacity in NCD surveillance.
WHO has also worked closely with partners, such as PATH and UNICEF, and benefitted from funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work on NCDs and cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer symptoms can include: irregular bleeding between periods or abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse; back, leg or pelvic pain; fatigue; weight loss and/or a loss of appetite; vaginal discomfort or odourous discharge; and a single swollen leg.