By Henry Opondo
Africa’s First Ladies hold the key in the fight against cervical and breast cancer—the big killer cancers of women in sub Saharan Africa, Dr Adetu Olateju a physician and Country Programme Manager, Red Ribbon, East and Southern Africa said at a session of the ongoing World Cancer Conference in Paris.
“First Ladies have a voice. They are not viewed as politicians and cut across political divide. They are seen as mothers of the nation and are recognizable. When they take on a campaign, their voice is heard far and wide”, said Dr Olateju.
According to Dr Olateju, examples from Ethiopia, Botswana and Tanzania where the First Lady and Ministers of Health have respectively taken leadership roles in campaigning against cervical cancer, there are notable positive impact. “Someone has to stand for the victims of cervical cancer, she said and who else can do this better than those among women privileged to be in position of leadership?” She asked. Cervical cancer said experts is killing the poorest of women and more those that are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, they are the ones who cannot make enough news.
She said that the two cancers are in competition to decimate African women, doing so at the most productive stages of their lives. Women aged between 30 to 50 are most affected.
But thanks to stigma associated with the diseases, lack of capacity in the public health institutions as well as under-equipped and under-manned healthcare facilities have ensured that women present cases when at very advanced stages.
Andrew Ndayisaba a programme officer from Rwanda said thanks to the lack of knowledge about breast cancer, husbands normally shun wives diagnosed with the disease. “This makes other women shy away from seeking screening let alone revealing that they have the problem”, he said.
Dr Olateju’s programme however strives to encourage women to seek screening and present themselves early in case of positive diagnosis as well as form social support groups. “Early detection has proved that it provides 90 per cent chance of survival in a breast cancer,” she said.
But the work her organization does in Zambia, Ethiopia, Botswana and Tanzania has also shown that presenting this information, usually de-linking breast cancer from death sentence, and given in their local languages, derives huge benefits.
According to Dr Olateju, cervical cancer is even more better managed given that it has a pre-cancer stage that could go anywhere between 1-10 years. The WHO is now recommending a visual test with household vinegar (Acetic Acid) to test for HPV.
When acetic acid is applied on the vulva, says Dr Olateju, pre-cancer cells turn white and when the acetic acid is applied, they die off, freeing the woman from the risk of infection of cervical cancer.