Ann McMikel, Vice President, Global Partnerships and Policy, American Cancer Society
Despite the fact that cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, every two minutes a woman dies of cervical cancer around the world. Close to one in 26 women will develop cervical cancer in their lifetime, and one in 40 will die from the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Atlas. It is critical that we close deadly gaps in cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment for women and girls by making this disease a top health and development priority for global leaders. This was the clarion call issued in July at the 9th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer in Africa Conference that was held in Nairobi, Kenya, which convened more than 20 African First Ladies and their high-level representatives around the theme of “Investing to Save Lives: The Role of Public-Private Sector Partnerships.”
I have often traveled to Africa, a region that is battling the double burden of communicable diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria and noncommunicable diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but never before have I witnessed the sense of urgency to combat Africa’s growing cancer threat for women. President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta presided over the conference program and shared their personal commitment to reducing the cancer toll on their country and region by strengthening policies, reducing stigma and advocating for increased funding. The conference brought together more than 4,000 delegates, including First Ladies, Parliamentarians, Ministers of Health, health professionals, NGOs, survivors and the corporate sector.
The president expressed his strong commitment for cancer control, including plans to open four regional cancer centers and a strong National Cancer Institute presence. He spoke of Africa’s unprecedented opportunity to leverage the public health gains and significant human and financial investments in the war against HIV/AIDS by ensuring that women’s cancers do not undermine the region’s forward economic progress and bright future for women and girls. The First Lady, who has a reputation of being humble, gracious and community-driven, spoke of the Beyond Zero campaign she leads, which focuses on providing maternal health services via mobile clinics. She recently integrated cervical cancer screening into the campaign’s offerings and pledged to address cancer stigma and making access to cervical cancer prevention and screening a major focus of her platform. The Beyond Zero campaign has reached more than 30 counties and was recently recognized by the United Nations.
The First Lady is a powerful role model who champions the fight against cancer. The Society is committed to supporting this special kind of leadership and we were proud to pilot a special pre-conference Cancer Champions training program for the offices of First Ladies in conjunction with this conference. The training provided evidence-based information and advocacy tools for cancer campaigns and messaging opportunities. More than 80 technical advisors and media assistants from Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Rwanda as well as our partners participated in the two-day training. Our speakers and partners included WHO, IAEA, Merck, Harvard, CITED, Roche and staff from the Kenya Health Ministry and Office of the First Lady. The key issues that were discussed and addressed were stigma, resource mobilization, framing messages, grassroots engagement, patient empowerment, and targeted advocacy opportunities around the post 2015 development agenda. We captured poignant video footage from participants who briefly shared why they are cancer champions. During the training, one of the survivors, who lives with HIV, bravely shared that when she got diagnosed with cervical cancer, she thought it was a death sentence and she contemplated suicide. She feared that she would be rejected by her husband and ostracized by her community. She somehow marshalled the strength and resources to seek treatment and today is committed to sharing her story in the hope that she can make a difference in reducing the stigma of this disease.
It is stories like hers that serve as powerful reminders that we must raise our collective voices around the world to demand accelerated access to the public health programs that we know can finish the fight against cervical cancer, including the HPV vaccine along with cost-effective screening and treatment services. Let’s spare our sisters, mothers, wives, and loved ones in developing nations like those in Africa from succumbing to this disease which can be conquered.
KENCASA at First Ladies Officers training at 9th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer in Africa Conference.