Zimbabwe: First Ladies Fight Cervical Cancer

22 October 2020

Senior Reporter

NATIONS must rally behind the call to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem by supporting human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination for girls, and early screening and detection of the cancer, vice president of the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development, First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa, has said.

Amai Mnangagwa was speaking in a virtual event which she chaired to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child 2020, which ran under the theme, "Why girls' health matters now more than ever".

The event was organised by OAFLAD and its partners who were unanimous in calling for an end to cervical cancer, saying collaborating in promoting HPV vaccines should be a priority among all stakeholders.

Amai Mnangagwa is also the country's health ambassador who emphasises that girls' rights to health services must be prioritised and yesterday she led the discussions.

So passionate about the health of citizens is the First Lady, with her Angel of Hope Foundation's mobile clinic traversing the length and breadth of the country with a team of medical experts to screen women for cervical and breast cancer.

Men have not been sidelined as they have also been screened for prostate cancer.

Leading by example, the First Lady has been screened for cervical and breast cancer to motivate other women to follow suit.

The International Day of the Girl Child exists to recognise girls' rights and the unique challenges they face across the world.

In her address, Amai Mnangagwa said yesterday's event was organised to commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child with a focus on the girl's health and well-being, particularly cervical cancer.

"The event aims at creating a platform to share experiences on cervical cancer screening and treatment and HPV vaccine and reflect on the importance of the cervical cancer elimination strategy to ensure the well-being of the girl child," said the First Lady.

"This year's the global theme adopted for the International Day of the Child is 'my voice, our equal future', which is a reflection of the commitment to imagine a world where girls feel recognised and empowered."

Investing in adolescent girls' health, Amai Mnangagwa said, was critical in enabling them to express themselves.

She said it was also a reminder to listen to girls, and involve them in decisions that will affect them in future.

"It is important to listen to their call to be understood and understand the changes they want to see so that they have an equal opportunity for a bright, safe and healthy future," said the First Lady.

"African First Ladies have been advocating for the girl child's right to have access to health services. We have been advocating for the increase of the capacity of the health sector to be able to provide adolescents and youth-friendly health services across the continent, with focus on girls.

"We have been calling for the stronger integration of services to improve health outcomes among adolescent girls and young women."

African First Ladies, the First Lady said, had through their national programmes raised greater public awareness about prevention, early diagnosis and treatment options for cervical cancer.

She said cervical cancer affected millions of women and killed many of them every year, yet it was a preventable disease.

Amai Mnangagwa said the OAFLAD 2020 annual theme, "Gender equality and women empowerment: a pathway to the Africa we want", was aimed at keeping the agenda of the African woman at the forefront.

"They (First Ladies) have vowed to mobilise African governments and global support for prioritisation and funding for the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer," she said.

The First Lady said African First Ladies' advocacy was not limited to the continent, adding that at the global level, OAFLAD organised a panel discussion on the margins of the 73rd UN General Assembly in 2018, where a white paper on the state of breast cancer and cervical cancer in Africa was released in collaboration with WHO Afro and the Africa Union Commission.

The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on movement, Amai Mnangagwa said, had increased risks for girls to be violated, abused and neglected.

"The number of gender-based violence cases has increased since the onset of Covid-19 in a number of countries," she said.

"Evidence from past experience with epidemics indicates that resources are often diverted from routine health services which further reduces access of many girls and young women to basic sexual and reproductive health services.

"Covid-19 has now become the pandemic that is restricting women and young girls access to their health rights."

The Covid-19 pandemic, said the First Lady, had exacerbated the gap in healthcare, including a decline in HPV vaccination availability rates.

"At present, however, as we near the time where students are going back to school, efforts should be made to reach out to more adolescent girls to receive the HPV vaccine," she said.

"A more collaborative effort needs to be put in place among various stakeholders in order to build the momentum once again with regards to ensuring adolescent girls receive the HPV vaccine in due time."

Girls, said the First Lady, were harder to reach once schools were closed, particularly those living in the rural areas.

She said schools were not only places for the young girl to thrive, but also a place where they could be reached for basic health services, including HPV vaccines which offer long-term protection against cervical cancer.

Amai Mnangagwa's sentiments were backed by the First Lady of Sierra Leone Mrs Fatima Maada Bio, who said there was need for an aggressive campaign against cancer.

"Cancer is a global issue and as mothers of Africa though we have different flagships, the fight against cancer should be our major priority," she said.

"Aggressive campaign against cancer should be louder around the world.

"We should all come together and talk about cancer, educate our people about cancer and raising awareness. Let us work together and make a difference for our girls."

Zambian First Lady, Mrs Esther Lungu, said girls had voices too and should be encouraged and empowered so that they become leaders and have freedom to make decisions.

She said elimination of cervical cancer goes beyond just the health status, adding that focus should also be on all the determinants that include economic, social and political hindrances that affect the effective elimination of the silent killer.

Mrs Brigitte Touadera, the Central African Republic First Lady, supported the need for enhanced coordination and awareness to help lead an effective response to Cervical Cancer elimination.

Deputy Chief executive officer-Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Mrs Anuradha Gupta said her organisation stood for the voice of girls and women and that it was passionate about making sure that both males and females have access to vaccines.

She urged the African First Ladies to join hands and focus on the protection of girls and women.

"We stay optimistic to work with many countries so that HPV vaccine does not have a setback," said Mrs Gupta. "Five million girls have already been reached and our focus is to reach out to all adolescents."

The First Ladies efforts will be boosted through efforts from the World Health Organisation, which said it would be unveiling a Cervical Cancer elimination strategy next month.

While efforts by OAFLAD global partners are commendable, the organisation's leadership believes their efforts could be more effective if they work directly with the African First Ladies', supporting the efforts they are putting in their respective countries.

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