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Growing Number of African Countries Aim for HPV Vaccination for Cervical Cancer

Cervical Cancer
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World’s highest rates of cancer are observed in African countries. Yunusa Bawa frequently discusses the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which is responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer. However, in the rural part of Nigeria where he works, only two or three people typically agree to vaccinate their daughters each day.

The challenge in Sabo community, on the outskirts of Abuja, is the widespread but unfounded rumour that the HPV vaccine will later prevent young girls from giving birth. “The rumour is too much,” said Bawa, 42.

As more African countries strive to administer the HPV vaccine, Bawa and other health workers face significant challenges, particularly misinformation about the vaccine. The World Health Organization’s Africa office estimates that about 25% of the population still doubts the vaccine, reflecting concerns seen globally in the early stages of vaccine campaigns.

HPV, a common sexually transmitted virus, can cause cervical cancer, other cancers, and genital warts. Most HPV infections do not cause any problems, but some persist and eventually lead to cancer.

In 2020, an average of 190 women in Africa died daily from cervical cancer, accounting for 23% of the global deaths, making it the leading cancer killer among women in the WHO Africa region of 47 countries. Eighteen of the 20 countries with the highest rates of cervical cancer cases in the world are in Africa, yet the region’s HPV vaccination rate remains low.

Out of Africa’s 54 nations, 28 have introduced the HPV vaccine into their immunization programs, but only five have achieved the 90% coverage goal set for 2030. Across the region, 33% of young girls have been vaccinated with HPV. This is in stark contrast to most European countries, where both girls and boys receive HPV shots.

Part of Africa’s high burden of cervical cancer is due to limited access to screening for women, said Emily Kobayashi, head of the HPV Program at the vaccines alliance Gavi. “The elimination approach is a long game… but we know that vaccination is the strongest pillar and one of the most easily implemented,” she said.

However, “it is one thing to introduce the vaccine, but if the vaccine remains in the fridge, it doesn’t prevent cervical cancer,” said Charles Shey Wiysonge, head of the vaccine-preventable diseases program in the WHO’s Africa region. He emphasized the need for information to be provided by trusted individuals who are close to the communities.

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