By: Lunga Memela (Communication Engagement Lead)
The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) has acted promptly in penning a letter that strongly encourages parents to support the ongoing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme running in schools, thanks to a joint effort from the Departments of Health, Basic Education and Social Development. The letter raises critical awareness about South Africa's Integrated School Health Programme, which offers the vaccine free-of-charge every year to girls between Grade 4 and 7 (approximately 9 to 12 years of age) in government schools. The programme aims to protect young girls and women from cervical cancer – the leading cause of female cancer deaths in South Africa.
In a recent article tackling HPV vaccine misinformation amongst South African girls attending private schools, the authors insisted on an advocacy campaign targeting all stakeholders nation-wide. A World Health Organization (WHO) 2020 strategy was formed to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem. It strongly recommends vaccination for girls before they reach the age of 15.
Towards HPV and cervical cancer prevention
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are two tests that can be done to help prevent cervical cancer and to detect it early. Women and girls can visit their nearest health facility where a Pap smear will be done in order to look for precancers – "these are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately."
Women and girls can also have an HPV test done. Not only is HPV the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), in their advice for immunisation against HPV, WHO explains that cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the uterus from the vagina) and that almost all cervical cancer cases (99%) are linked to infection with high-risk HPV – "an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact."
In October 2019, WHO announced a major milestone being reached when 100 countries officially introduced the HPV vaccine into their national schedules. While South Africa is making great inroads, more awareness needs to be raised, especially about access to the vaccine as well as its efficacy. This was reiterated in an article published by Health-E News, saying cervical cancer could be eliminated by the end of this century, thanks to a preventative vaccine. However, ignorance is a major barrier to the rollout of the vaccine in SA, where the disease is the deadliest cancer for women.
WHO stresses that immunisation is a key component of primary health care and an indisputable human right. However, "despite tremendous progress, far too many people around the world – including nearly 20 million infants each year – have insufficient access to vaccines."
Watch this informative video from CANSA promoting cervical cancer awareness.
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