EYEAFRICA TV: Banjul, The Gambia: Gambia’s health ministry officials have discovered that 32 per cent of deaths among women in the country is cause by cervical cancer; a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix.
Program officer of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) unit, Mamanding Kinteh said: “The primary cause of cancer deaths among women accounts for 32% of all cancer in women and is 12% prevalence of human papilloma virus infection in 2018.”
During a press briefing at the Central medical store in Kotu on Friday, Mrs Kinteh said cervical cancer is caused by the abnormal of cell in the cervix (opening of the womb), saying globally, it kills 260,000 women annually.
She said almost all cases of cervical cancer (99%) are caused by a sexually transmitted virus call the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can also cause genital warts in both men and women and other cancers of the anus, vagina, penis, vulva and throat.
The Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) June 2019 figures indicate that Gambia has a population of 549,836 women ages 15 years and older who are at risk of de- veloping cervical cancer which is ranked as the first most frequent cancer among women in the country and the first most frequent cancer among women between 15 and 44 years of age.
Mrs Kinteh said in her presentation that most of the people with HPV do not have any signs or symptoms and are unaware of the infection, saying in most cases, HPV infection will clear on its own. “However, persistent infection can lead to cervical cancer, including abnormal vaginal bleeding, abnormal vagina discharge and back and pelvic pain.”
She added that if detected early, cervical cancer can be treated with its screening and treatment services available in certain areas in the country. But she advised that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer.
In 2018, ICO/ IARC Human Papillomavirus and Related Cancers Fact Sheet estimates indicate that every year, 184 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 132 die from the disease.
Data is not yet available on the HPV burden in the general population of Gambia but in West Africa, the region Gambia belongs to, about 4.3% of women in the general population are estimated to harbour cervical HPV-16/18 infection at a given time, and 55.6% of invasive cervical cancers are attributed to HPVs 16 or 18.
Madam Kinteh said the ministry of health together with UNICEF and the WHO came up with a vaccine to help prevent the girls from having cervical cancer. “The vaccination is only targeting girls because cervical cancer only affects females. The vaccine is most effective if administered prior to exposure to the virus, which is before the person becomes sexually active. Therefore, girls must be vaccinated when they are young.”
She revealed that a total of 147,708 is expected to be vaccinated with the vaccine with each receiving 2 doses to be fully protected with an interval of at least 6 months.
Buya Jallow, immunization officer at UNICEF, said cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women. “So, with this vaccine we now have an opportunity if we vaccinate all eligible girls. At the moment, we are targeting grade 3 girls and out- of school peers age 9- 14. If we continue this, we have an opportunity to eliminate cervical cancer in the next generation.”
She said it is a great achievement for Gambia to introduce the vaccine. “We are the second country in West Africa to introduce this vaccine to protect our girls from cancer. One of the fundamental rights of every child is the right to health and I think if we have things in place like vaccines that can protect our children and we delivery that, and we are successful at that, I think we are fulfilling our responsibilities to these rights of the children.”
She said the vaccines provided in The Gambia to children are all WHO pre-qualified and it is extensively tested and all the vaccines given in the country are procured through UNICEF. “We want to assure that any vaccine that is given has gone through extensive process to make sure that they are not just safe but are effective to prevent the disease that they are supposed to prevent.”
She said vaccination will take place at all public and private schools in the Gambia, including Madarasas and will be also available at health facilities and communities for girls who are out of school.
Madam Jallow said health workers who will be administering the vaccine have undergone training, adding that the awareness level is very low in the Gambia when it comes to the immunization.
She said they use a tool call U report which is an SMS base tool that UNICEF is working on together with different partners and it’s free for anybody to join. “You just have to send a text ‘join 1234’ and it is completely free and can work on all Africell and Qcell lines,” she stated, adding that they used it to create awareness on the HPV vaccine.
Buba Darboe, program manager at the ministry of health said cervical cancer figures are very high in The Gambia. “As a nation, we should be prepared to roll out this vaccine and this is not the job of the ministry of health.”
He said they did not just jump and introduce the vaccination adding that there has been an improvement but they are still faced with a huge challenge because there are many misconceptions around cervical cancer. He called on the media to help raise awareness and clear the misconceptions and urged people to go for regularly screening.
Story written by Juldeh Njie