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A Comprehensive Health Strategy Can End Cervical Cancer Deaths
In January, health providers throughout the United States recognized Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, reminding women and adolescent girls of the steps needed to prevent this disease.
The good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers when caught early. It is caused by specific types of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is a common infection that nearly everyone who is sexually active will have at some point in their lives. Among medical professionals there is a general consensus that vaccinations, regular pap tests beginning at the age of 21, and HPV tests help prevent and detect cervical cancer. There are also vaccines that block the types of HPV that are most often found with cervical cancers, and screenings can help identify the women who are most at risk.
For many women, however, regular pap tests and vaccinations remain out of reach. Weak health systems, high health care costs, and restrictive policies prevent many women—especially rural populations and adolescents—from accessing regular preventative care. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the incidence of cervical cancer is roughly 5 times the number of cases that occur in the US and Canada. And the number of deaths recorded annually is almost 7 times greater than the number of deaths recorded annually in North America.
The solution is to ensure that more women have access to better health care, including the HPV vaccine. When given to young women, these vaccines can prevent up to 70 percent of new cases of cervical cancer. Throughout the region, our partners are piloting innovative—and effective—programs to ensure that all women have access to quality sexual and reproductive health care, including screening for cervical cancer:
In Bolivia, the toll of cervical cancer is especially tragic. Every day, five women die from cervical cancer, and nearly 3 million young women are at risk for developing this preventable disease. In response, we worked closely with CIES, our partner on the ground, to educate parents and young girls about the HPV vaccine as a simple and effective means for preventing cervical cancer. Then, CIES set out to provide the vaccine to girls in poor urban and isolated rural areas with the most difficult access to services. Our campaign against cervical cancer in Bolivia resulted in nearly 75,000 girls being vaccinated against the disease.
In Haiti, day-to-day life continues to be a struggle in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Lack of infrastructure, poor quality roads, and the high number of people still seeking permanent housing make reaching—and treating—vulnerable populations a challenge. Working with our partner, PROFAMIL, we've implemented a breakthrough innovation for detecting precancerous cervical lesions with the naked eye. This approach does not require sophisticated lab equipment, assessment is immediate, and usually the client can be treated during the same visit. With this simple, cost-effective method, we are now able to identify up to 79 percent of women at high risk of developing cervical cancer.
Women in developing countries account for 80 percent of all new cases of cervical cancer worldwide, and new research shows this rate is continuing to rise. Effective screening programs are largely unavailable in poor countries. As a result, most women with cervical cancer obtain health services only after the disease has reached an untreatable advanced stage, condemning them to a horrible death.
A comprehensive approach that includes screening, pre-cancer treatment, and HPV vaccination could save the lives of the nearly 300,000 women who will die from cervical cancer this year. This approach also requires sexuality education where young people learn how to protect themselves and investments in emerging technologies like a rapid HPV test.
More than anything else, putting an end to these preventable deaths requires political will, resources, and cooperation -- and the belief that even one death from cervical cancer is too many.