The fight against cervical cancer gains momentum as faith organizations convene in Nairobi

Africa Science News

By Lenah Bosibori

The recent Nairobi Cervical Cancer Elimination and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccination Convening has boosted the fight against cancer elimination in Africa as many commitments were presented geared towards improving screening, vaccination and prevention.

The convening that took place from 11th-13th June, brought together a diverse group of faith leaders, health professionals, and experts, health and community advocates, as well as policymakers, under the theme  “Uniting Faith and Science against Cervical Cancer.”

Speaking to the Africa Science News, Fr Charlie Chilufya the Chair, of Africa Health and Economic Transformation Initiative (AHETI) read the delegation’s commitments that looked towards enhanced collaborative networks, capacity building of faith leaders, leveraging the results as they promised a commitment to widespread the uptake of the vaccine and urged for a network to broaden the screening.

“We are energized and committed to continuing our efforts to combat cervical cancer through increased HPV vaccination rates, enhanced screening, robust treatment protocols and effective public health strategies. Together, we strive towards a future where cervical cancer no longer poses a significant threat to the health and well-being of women in Africa,” read part of the statement to the ASNS.

In 2020, the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association (KCDA) objected to the  HPV vaccine whose main target was to be administered to all school girls aged 9-14 years arguing that girls in this age group, who are classified as a high-risk population, are far too young to contract the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is the primary cause of 99.7 per cent of all cervical cancer cases.

During the Nairobi convening, Rev Dr Pascal Mwakio, a Bio Ethicist and Theologian, Kenya reiterated that previously the church had raised concerns over the vaccine’s safety and the gender issue.

“Anything that threatens human life is a concern, we also wanted to know why only girls with a particular age, these were concerns that needed to be resolved through a dialogue, ” said Mwakio.

Pamela Savai, a cancer survivor in her remarks recalled when she did an advert on TV and the backlash she received from her friends asking her why she chose to publicly admit that she had cervical cancer.

“Many people in my community and country do it secretly, I remember the first time I did an advert on TV, some of my friends called me and asked me, Pamela, why did you decide to go public, why do you have to admit that you have cervical cancer?” she posed.

Savai told the convening that the HPV Vaccine is as safe as any other vaccine that we give to our children including polio, measles and it is very effective. “Cervical cancer is one of the cancers that can be prevented through the HPV vaccine, it is cancer that is treated especially when it is detected at an early age and it is also treated,” she added.

Many people term cancer as a death sentence and Savai being a survivor applauded the faith organizations saying that it was a prayer answered when the church held a convening to talk about the HPV vaccine at large. “When we hear it from the clergy, we hold on to it,” said Savai.

According to Fr. Germain Rajoelison representing the Symposium of Episcopal Conference of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Africa records 190,000 new cases annually and 23 women die per minute in Africa through cervical cancer.

Dr Paul Bloem Senior Technical Officer at World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva who joined virtually said that the vaccine has shown very good results and added that 45 million lives of women can be saved if 90 per cent of vaccinations are attained in low- and middle-income countries alone in the next 100 years. “This is a vaccine that prevents cancer cases and it’s the infection,” said Bloem.

“We are starting to see that the vaccine is expanding on the continent, 28 countries have been introduced in Africa,” he added.

Among the many commitments presented during the convening were;

Recognizing the devastating impact of cervical cancer on the social fabric of our families and economies in Africa and the pain and suffering to African women, with approximately 126,000 new cases and 81,000 deaths annually (Globocan).

The convening was also dedicated to supporting the implementation of the current multi-faceted strategies across the life course that emphasizes the critical components of behavioural change communication, HPV vaccination (our youth), HPV screening (our women), treatment, palliative care, and survivorship (our patients).

They also agreed to acknowledge the current underutilization of these health services due to various cultural, logistical, and informational barriers and emphasized the powerful influence of faith leaders and communities in shaping health behaviors and decisions among others.

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