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By: Lunga Memela (Communications Engagement Lead)
Every year, on 11 February, the United Nations (UN) celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is a significant commemoration as, according to the UN, even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The UN believes that gender equality and the empowerment of this key population will make a crucial contribution not only to global economic development, but to progress across all the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Similarly, when it comes to health promotion, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has long advocated that keeping girls in school reduces new HIV infections. UNAIDS confirms that, globally, HIV is still most prevalent in South Africa, and that the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province records the highest number of HIV infections, with the majority being adolescent girls and young women. The link between HIV, and HPV infection and cervical cancer is well established, and therefore, screening for cervical cancer for early detection is mandated in national health guidelines.
This year, in the spirit of promoting health, education and applauding the remarkable strides made by women and girls in science, the Health Systems Trust's Communications Unit interviewed Dr Nompumelelo Pamela Ntshangase-Mpanza – a gynaecologist by profession who was born in Durban's Inanda township, and who now serves as the Project Manager for HST's Cervical Cancer Prevention, Access and Control (CCPAC) programme in KZN's Zululand District in support of the Department of Health (KZN DoH).
Funded by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation and implemented under the auspices of a consortium comprising HST, the Zululand DoH, the Cancer & Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Research Unit (CIDERU) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and Genius Quality (GQ), the CCPAC project is aimed at saving the lives of women and girls from cervical cancer – the only preventable cancer, and one which can be easily treated if it is detected early. Dr Ntshangase-Mpanza joined the project in October 2022.
Q: So Doc, what makes you passionate about the work you do?
I love my work because it coincides with my passion for saving women and for cervical cancer prevention programmes. Previously, I worked in one of the biggest oncology units in eThekwini, as well as at Queen Nandi Regional Hospital in Empangeni. I saw the suffering of young females from disadvantaged backgrounds dying from cervical cancer and realised there is something I can do about it. It gave me great pleasure to join the CCPAC project.
Q: What did you want to be when you were young, and did you ever think that you would end up as a woman in the health space?
Yes! (chuckles) Although, I also wanted to be a pilot but my mother discouraged me due to fear of the plane crashing whilst training.
I developed the interest of becoming a doctor when I was in high school. I had malaria, and the nurse who was treating me gave me such bad service, shouting at me for no reason. As young as I was, I knew that it was not the way to be treating patients. I decided then that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up and do better. Fortunately, I was one of the top-performing students in my school, so my marks allowed the dream and the entry to medical school.
I also knew early that I wanted to work with women, even though at the time I didn't know in what way. It was when I did my gynaecological rotation at Baragwanath Hospital in my undergraduate training that I discovered that I enjoyed the subject. It also happened that one of my late distant uncles was also a gynaecologist, so that strengthened my love for the profession.
Q: Why is it important to attract more and more women into science, especially the health sciences?
Without sounding feminist, women suffer from a lot more health issues than men, and oftentimes it is easy to deal with someone relatable from the same sex. Patients are more comfortable to be treated by other women in the field of gynaecology because it is such a private and a very intimate exam.
We need more young women joining the industry, and also to do away with the mentality that women are only good to bear children and stay at home cooking and cleaning. This results in [a] lot of women being abused because they are completely dependent on their partners financially. Women need to know that they are capable and need to take up space in this previously male-dominated industry. Women did not always have these opportunities in the past and as the world is transforming, so we need to encourage this and also mentor the young ladies who aspire to be in the field.
Q: What was your motivation to end up becoming a woman in science?
I was born in Inanda Township, Durban. I moved to Manguzi just before high school, where my parents were teaching. Honestly, I think my greatest motivation was wanting to move away from poverty and I always knew that I was destined for greater things. I wanted to change the economic disposition of my family. I loved physical science in high school and did very well in the subject. My physics teacher, Miss Mavundla, also played an important role in motivating and encouraging me to do well. It was without a doubt that I would end up doing something in science.
Q: Why is science important in addressing today's problems, especially in the health sector?
If we are to address the problems the world is facing now (e.g. climate changes, food security), science is the only proven solution without which, there is no productivity. Look at COVID-19 for example; it put the whole world into a standstill and the solutions came from lessons learnt in science. Health is the one commodity we can't afford to not have; it drives the world's economy.
Q: Where would you like to see science go in terms of health systems research and health systems strengthening?
I think there is a great need for health systems strengthening, especially in Africa. Most solutions have come from other continents and sometimes are not always applicable to our context. We need to strengthen research of our own environment and people. There are medicines that have long been in use in Africa that can help to eradicate diseases that have devastated our people.
Most facilities or programmes also fail because of lack of mentorship and strengthening of systems. This would help bridge the gaps within the health systems, especially from guideline to implementation. If we focus on health systems strengthening and find sustainable evidence-based solutions, then the world would be a much better place for all.
Q: What are your goals and aspirations?
I'd say: To live my life to the fullest, travel the world, and conquer new territories. The next decade of my life focuses on discovering my true potential and making my mark in the women's space, especially in cervical cancer prevention. I am hoping to do my PhD soon and find solutions that will bring about change to our continent. I hope to inspire and mentor the youth, and young doctors who may be lost and discouraged out there.
Dr Ntshangase-Mpanza is a married mother of three children. She continues to thrive because of her good support system and faith in God. She loves going to church! When not out and about being a woman in science, she enjoys taking relaxing beach walks, watching movies, and going out with friends.
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