World Cancer Day: Invest in Innovation That Saves Lives
Kelly Castagnaro, Director of Communications
Elba Luz Villalobos Navarro is a 62-year-old woman from El Salvador with long graying hair and a kind smile. Two years ago, a doctor in a public health clinic told Elba she was displaying symptoms of cervical cancer. He told her to buy a $40 cream to treat the symptoms, but did not give her a prescription or tell her what the cream was for. Not understanding the severity of his diagnosis, and without money to purchase the cream, Elba relied on home remedies until the pain throughout her stomach and pelvis became severe.
In the early part of the 20th century, cervical cancer was the leading cause of death among women. While mortality from cervical cancer has largely been curbed in developed countries in recent decades thanks to early detection, nearly 300,000 still women die each year from this preventable and curable disease. Once the burden of rich countries, non-communicable diseases are increasingly affecting individuals in low- and middle-income countries, where they impose heavy burdens on already fragile health systems.
When it comes to cervical cancer, women like Elba who live in developing countries account for more than 80% of all new cases worldwide. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of annual deaths related to cervical cancer is more than seven times greater than in North America. Recent reports have indicated that cervical cancer is likely to become one of the leading causes of death among women of reproductive age: If current trends continue, by the year 2050, there will be more than one million new cases of invasive cervical cancer annually.
These numbers are even more foreboding when we consider the fact that cervical cancer is entirely preventable, treatable, and curable. But many impoverished communities throughout the world lack access to quality basic healthcare. There's not a widespread awareness of the problem of cervical cancer, and many parents can't afford effective preventive measures such as the HPV vaccine for their daughters. As a result, many women reach medical care only after the disease has reached an untreatable advanced stage, condemning them to a horrible death.
The solution is to ensure that all women have access to quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care, including prevention, screening, and treatment for cervical cancer. The Pap smear has been the standard for cervical cancer prevention and has been successful in lowering cervical cancer morbidity and mortality by up to 80% in the developed world, but for many women, getting a Pap smear can be costly. Transportation costs, doctor fees, Pap smear supplies, and expensive lab processing fees can total more than $20, which amounts to more than two weeks income in some countries. For some, the thought of follow-up visits and treatment is financially out of the question.
In spite of obstacles, there is also hope: in countries where access to these services remains challenging for many, simple, cost-effective screening and treatment breakthroughs provide an historical opportunity to dramatically reduce the disease in the developing world.
Throughout the region, our local Member Associations are pioneering new detection and prevention methods—and demonstrating success. In Haiti—a country with one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the world—Profamil established a new low-cost method of detection and treatment using a common household item- vinegar. In Bolivia, Centro de Investigación, Educación y Servicios has vaccinated more than 75,000 girls in rural and urban areas against the disease and is now working with the government to expand this program. And in El Salvador, a mobile health clinic operated by our partner Asociación Demográfica Salvadoreña (ADS) brings subsidized health services to hard-to-reach areas and saving the lives of women like Elba, who is recovering from recent surgery.
“I thank god for everything [ADS] did for me,” said Elba. “Without their help, I would have died.”
Today, on World Cancer Day, these are the programs and services we should invest in to prevent the senseless deaths of women like Elba and millions more.