It is time to save our girls from this cancer

Management Centre Sub-Saharan Africa head Rajen Bhimaraj and Kisumu’s First Lady Dorothy Nyong'o during the launch of COBAS 4800, the new cancer screening technology for cervical cancer. [File, Standard]
This week, Kenyans looked to the future as we stood up and were counted during the National Population and Housing Census. It was an exercise that left many of us thinking about the future of our country. Here is something else that needs to get us thinking. Come September, it will be time to stand up again—this time for our daughters whose lives are at risk from cervical cancer.

It is up to every mother, father, guardian and caregiver to protect our girls from cervical cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths in the country. This cancer claims the lives of nine Kenyan women every day, yet is preventable with a vaccine that has proven safe and effective around the world.

I work on the frontlines of cervical cancer prevention and early detection, educating women in cities, towns and villages across our nation about what they can do to protect their lives and those of their children. In the course of my work, I have seen enough needless suffering due to cervical cancer. 

In June, we buried Rose Chiedo, a phenomenal advocate for cancer prevention who was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. How senseless it was that we lost Rose to her third recurrence of this preventable disease. Her radiant smile and endless optimism could not save her. 

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She died five days before her 49th birthday, leaving behind a 24-year-old son, who may one day be a father to a daughter. After bearing witness to his mother’s struggle, I know he would seize the opportunity to protect his daughter with a simple vaccine.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer—99.7 per cent—are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The virus is so common that most people will get an infection during their lifetime. The good news is that the HPV vaccine is extremely effective at preventing HPV infections and therefore at preventing cervical cancer.

When given to young girls before exposure to the virus, this extraordinary vaccine protects against the disease, suffering and death. Cervical cancer usually strikes within decades of infection, often when a woman is in her prime.

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The Government is committed to reaching 800,000 ten-year-old girls every year with the HPV vaccine and put our country on the path to eliminating cervical cancer for current and future generations of girls.

The next action is up to us, the caregivers and guardians of our youth.

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We know that the HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Since 2007, more than 80 countries have introduced national HPV vaccination programmes and more than 270 million doses have been given worldwide. Kenya successfully piloted the vaccine in Kitui in 2015.

A new major study covering 60 million vaccinated youth in a dozen wealthy countries demonstrates the vaccine’s protective impact and the feasibility of eliminating cervical cancer. In most low-and middle-income countries, cervical cancer remains a leading cause of death in women and around 90 per cent of the more than 300,000 annual deaths from cervical cancer occur in these countries.

The death rate from cervical cancer is highest in Africa. Yet, Rwanda, which introduced the vaccine nationally in 2011, has achieved 93 per cent coverage of the HPV vaccine and could become one of the first countries to eliminate cervical cancer.

In Kenya, the Government is doing its part. It has allocated resources and will deliver the HPV vaccine through public, private and faith-based health facilities nationwide–free of charge. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to protect life.

The only question now is whether we will respond in kind and take every single eligible girl by the hand to get vaccinated.

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Kenyan parents have done so for polio and their actions have enabled its near elimination. They have done so for measles, for diphtheria and a host of other childhood diseases. Now it is time to do the same to eliminate cervical cancer.

It is also incumbent upon our leaders–in the community, in places of worship, in schools, in business, in media to do their part. Kenya has no shortage of opinion leaders and this is an issue that they can and should advocate for to advance the health of our girls and our entire population.

Once diagnosed, the fight against cancer is not only a personal journey, but also a community burden. When a mother dies, the fabric of her family disintegrates and the social and economic health of her community weakens. When a daughter dies, her parents’ hopes die with her. If we don’t act now, deaths from cervical cancer around the world are expected to rise by 50 per cent by 2040.

We owe it to Rose, our children and communities to act now to save lives and avoid needless suffering. When the Kenyan government rolls out the vaccine in health facilities and schools nationwide, I hope to see long lines of parents taking their daughters to receive this quick injection for a lifetime of protection. 

Ms Kithaka is Co-Founder of Kenyan NGO Women 4 Cancer Early Detection and Treatment. [email protected]

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HPV vaccineCervical cancer