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By: Lunga Memela (HST Communications Engagement Lead)
Meet Sr Thandeka Dladla, who joined the Health Systems Trust's Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control (CCPAC) project as a Nurse Clinician in December 2022. She feels privileged to be channelling her knowledge and expertise in cervical cancer prevention to save the lives of local women and girls in Vryheid, Zululand.
Funded by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation and implemented under the auspices of a consortium comprising HST, the Zululand DoH (ZDoH), 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, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and one which can be easily treated if it is detected early.
The vast majority of cervical cancer cases are linked to infection with the high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact, and associated with HIV infection. "The CCPAC project therefore addresses the alarming rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – HPV and HIV – within the local communities," explains Dr Nompumelelo Ntshangase, HST's CCPAC Project Manager.
In the first quarter of every year (February to March), the South African National Department of Health (NDoH) runs an important nationwide campaign aimed at promoting HPV vaccination, especially among school-going youth for the prevention of cervical cancer. During this period of awareness, it was fitting for the Communications Team to have a chat with Sr Thandeka about her experience within the project.
Sr Thandeka's story
It is her warm personality coupled with being a loving and caring individual that landed Sr Thandeka in the nursing profession. "I always do justice when providing nursing care to my patients. I try my best to give each and every patient my all," she says. Sr Thandeka holds a Diploma in Nursing from the Kwazulu-Natal College of Nursing's Benedictine Campus in Nongoma Town, where she graduated in 2013.
She notes that, historically, cervical cancer screening has not been as highly prioritised as other health programmes. Because this needs careful monitoring and evaluation, Sr Thandeka feels that more nurses should be involved in screening a high number of women for cervical cancer, because its early detection always yields better patient outcomes.
Sr Thandeka finds it encouraging to see cervical cancer screening being increasingly integrated into Primary Health Care services, not only in facilities but also in communities during outreach interventions, offered in HST mobile vehicles.
"The involvement of nurses and other health professionals assists in process mapping of women in facilities," she explains, "by disseminating information through health education, screening of all eligible women for cervical cancer, and ensuring that all the women screened receive their results timeously and that their treatment is managed accordingly." Sr Thandeka believes in active referral systems, and also in all health professionals playing an active role in promoting prevention.
Addressing local misconceptions about cervical cancer
Sr Thandeka highlights that there is a prevalent misconception which must be dispelled immediately. "Cervical cancer has long been perceived, especially in rural communities, as a disease that occurs among elderly people, and so we must raise awareness that the condition affects all women of child-bearing age," she says. "Increased health education about the causes of cervical cancer and the factors contributing to its incidence are bound to raise critical awareness. It is also important to make the public aware that the choices they make now, particularly risky sexual behaviour, may expose them to cervical cancer in the future."
Bring women, young girls, men and young boys collectively into the picture
Sr Thandeka feels that men and young boys should also be educated about cervical cancer. "These are their partners, mothers, sisters and grannies who are infected. As men, they too are affected, and often continue to perpetuate the disease progression of HPV and HIV."
She says that unfortunately, local communities do not yet fully understand the association between HIV and HPV. "If they did, there would be as many individuals volunteering for cervical cancer screening as there is for HIV… but we're working on it! It will take added commitment from health professionals and more and more outreach initiatives that prioritise health education."
Sr Thandeka has set herself the ultimate goal of ensuring that all women of child-bearing age are screened for cervical cancer, that they receive their results, and that those whose results cause concern are managed accordingly. "My aspiration is to ensure that all the Pap smears I take align with best practices for endocervical smear evaluation."
When not focusing on CCPAC project work, she enjoys cooking, watching reality shows, and reading, but "doing Pap smears has also become my hobby," she chuckles.
Health Systems Strengthening Programme Manager, Joslyn Walker, observes that having people like Sr Thandeka on our project team is the 'X factor' at the root of HST's success. "Our people are passionate about their roles, and take project success personally," she says. "They are not just the face of our work, but at our heart."
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