By Maria Blair, American Cancer Society National Vice President for Strategy
The global toll of cancer will continue to rise if where we live determines whether we live. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many people – especially women and girls – around the world. In the western world, the cervical cancer threat has been dramatically reduced thanks to widely available screening tests and vaccines. In developing countries, however, it is still a leading killer of women, often affecting many women in the prime of their lives – women who support families and are key economic contributors in their countries.
At the GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations) Alliance Partners Forum currently under way in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, GAVI has just announced a new commitment to curb the threat of this disease. With GAVI’s support, by 2020, more than 30 million girls in developing countries could have the opportunity to be immunized against the human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer.
This project has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. The new Cervical Cancer Action Report Card, released December 6 at the GAVI conference, states that if current trends continue, by 2030, cervical cancer is expected to kill more than 474,000 women per year. More than 85 percent of these deaths are expected to be in low- and middle-income countries. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, cervical cancer rates are expected to double. In fact, in Tanzania and other parts of eastern Africa, cervical cancer was the most frequently diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death, according to the American Cancer Society's Global Cancer Facts & Figures (2nd Edition, 2011).
We must raise awareness about the impact of cervical cancer on women and girls in the developing world and work toward a future free of this highly preventable and curable disease. Prominent African women such as the first ladies of Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa have made great strides in raising awareness of the devastating burden caused by cervical cancer. But more needs to be done via a multi-sector approach, similar to what we've seen in championing the control of HIV and other infectious diseases in the developing world. We must call on our government leaders to prioritize cervical cancer in their national development and health programs, and ensure that the necessary political and financial commitments are made and sustained. We must also work with and through civil society networks at the local, national, and global levels to accelerate adoption of the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls and increase access to resource-appropriate cervical cancer screening for adult women. These tools are critical “best buys” the global health community must invest in to save lives and end suffering from this disease that needlessly claims the lives of our mothers, sisters, and daughters.
Now more than ever, we have an unprecedented opportunity to prevent, detect, and treat cervical cancer, and it is time all women benefited from this knowledge. GAVI's commitment to making the HPV vaccine more affordable and accessible to 57 of the world's poorest countries is certainly an important step in the right direction. It’s time to recognize women’s health as a right, and not a privilege.