By Vincess Okushi

The World Health Organization (WHO) has charged all countries in the region to actively engage in cervical cancer awareness campaigns, to boost screening as well as to encourage human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination among young women.

Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti gave the charge in a message for marking the 2024 awareness month billed on three key areas: be informed; get screened; and get vaccinated.

She said as countries begin the 2024 cervical cancer awareness it is imperative to place the message on top of their agenda to accelerate action against cervical cancer and ensure that no woman in Africa needs to be diagnosed with the devastating disease.

In 2020, in the WHO African Region, 100,000 women developed cervical cancer and approximately 70,000 of these women died – this is 21% of the cervical cancer mortality globally. Cervical cancer disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable communities.

Young women in particular must know about the link between cervical cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Almost all (99%) of cervical cancer is linked to this common virus, that is transmitted during sex.

Second, get screened. Knowing about this link with a common viral infection means that it is now easier to screen women for the disease. And third, get vaccinated – this disease can be prevented by vaccinating young women, so preventing HPV infection. Cervical cancer awareness requires us to empower women with knowledge, at school, by clinic staff, and from women who are living with the disease.

The high rates of cervical cancer in our region show that there are major gaps in knowledge, awareness of the disease, and access to screening. We also need urgently to ensure that the HPV vaccine reaches all our young women between the ages of 9 to 14 years. This requires us to focus on our immediate needs to address these gaps.

How are we, in the WHO African Region, tackling this unacceptable burden of disease? First, as a region, we have a specific public health framework, launched in 2021, aimed at accelerating the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem in Africa. This framework contains concrete actions that can be taken to reach the following targets: 90% of girls are fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by 15 years of age; 70% of women are screened using a high-performance test by 35 years of age and again by 45 years of age; and 90% of women with pre-cancer are treated, and 90% of women with more advanced cancer are managed.

We also need to be aware that women living with HIV have increased susceptibility to HPV infection and so an increased risk of cervical cancer. While this is a particular challenge in the African Region, with our high levels of HIV infection, this is also an opportunity. We can use our HIV screening and treatment services as another opportunity to raise awareness of cervical cancer and offer screening and vaccination to women attending HIV services.

Good pathology services are also needed to diagnose cervical cancer, and once diagnosed patients may need more than one kind of treatment. All of this needs to be scaled up across the region, and made available at public health centers, in a way that does not result in major costs to patients and their families.

The Regional Director is optimistic that cervical cancer can be prevented and cured and urges everyone to be aware of the disease on how it can be prevented to ensure that no woman in Africa is diagnosed with the devastating disease.

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