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Faith leaders join push for HPV vaccine uptake

 Brenda Kithaka, Fr Charles Chilafya and Fr Germain Rajoelison. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

When it comes to vaccines and contraception, religion and science have always been at cross purposes, with each side often wringing hands in frustration that justifies the oddity of a feud never won.

But with the devastating impact of cervical cancer, religious leaders now seem to be moving towards a unique convergence with science, on the administration of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

The Nairobi Cervical Cancer Elimination and HPV Vaccination convention that was recently held in Nairobi was a rare moment that united divergent voices on the need to focus on cervical cancer.

It brought together different stakeholders, among them religious leaders, who agreed to scale up the reach and effectiveness of cervical cancer prevention efforts.

“A major focus of our convening was to leverage the resources of faith networks to increase HPV vaccination rates significantly. We are committed to expanding access to vaccines by enhancing public awareness to ensure widespread uptake,” said Father Charlie Chilufya, chair, Africa Health and Economic Transformation Initiative (AHETI).

AHETI was founded by the TaskfForce of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission. 

It is domiciled within The Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network – Africa (JENA), of the Catholic Church.

 During the three-day discussion, the working group acknowledged that the current underutilisation of the health services was due to various cultural, logistical, and informational barriers which were majorly caused by misinformation from the religious side and communities.

The faith leaders were then equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to advocate effectively through behavioural change communication.

In 2019, the government initiated a programme to offer free vaccination that consists of two doses to 10-year-old girls followed by another six months later.

However, data shows that the vaccine uptake has been low with only 31 per cent of the eligible girls fully vaccinated by 2020.

“We resolved to utilise the resources of faith networks and the influence of faith leaders to broaden behavioural change activities, screening initiatives across the continent, employing advanced diagnostic technologies, and improving infrastructure to reach remote and underserved areas.

‘‘Collaborative efforts with governments, and national and international health organisations will help make screening a routine part of women’s healthcare,” Chilufya added.

The stakeholders also proposed strategic discussions with policymakers to advocate for comprehensive cervical cancer care policies; that support the implementation of advanced behavioural change communication, HPV vaccination, screening, treatment and palliative care.

According to the World Health Organisation’s disease elimination strategy, it targets to get 90 per cent of girls vaccinated by age 15, 70 per cent of women screened by ages 35 and 45, and 90 per cent of women with cervical disease receiving treatment.

Cervical cancer is the most diagnosed type of gynecologic cancer amongst women worldwide, with an estimated 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths in 2020.

This type of cancer is preventable through a combination of primary (vaccination) and secondary (screening) approaches followed by treatment of precancerous lesions.

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