The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a strategy on Tuesday to eliminate cervical cancer worldwide and prevent the deaths of an estimated 5 million women and girls by 2050.
“Eliminating any cancer would have once seemed an impossible dream, but we now have the cost-effective, evidence-based tools to make that dream a reality,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
In August, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution calling for the elimination of cervical cancer. This week, the WHO officially launched the elimination plan.
The strategy will include vaccinating 90% of girls by age 15, screening 70% of women by 35 and again at 45, and treating 90% of women with an identified cervical disease by 2030.
“We have an opportunity, as the global health community, to end the suffering from this cancer,” Dr. Princess Nothemba Simelela, WHO's assistant director-general for family, women, children, and adolescents, said at a news conference.
Cervical cancer was once considered one of the most dangerous forms of cancer for people with a cervix. But today, thanks to Pap smears, cervical precancers and cancers can be detected early on and cured. What's more, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil, protects against a virus that leads to most cervical cancer cases.
“This is a big milestone in global health, because for the first time the world has agreed to eliminate the only cancer we can prevent with a vaccine and the only cancer which is curable if detected early,” Simelela continued.
Cervical cancer is still the fourth most common cancer in women, according to the WHO. In 2018, an estimated 570,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 311,000 women died from the disease.
But the distribution of cervical cancer cases is unequal, according to the WHO. In 2018, 90% of all cervical cancer deaths occurred in low-and middle-income countries. Limited access to public health services, screening for the disease, and effective treatment puts women in these countries more at risk.
The elimination of the disease will generate substantial economic and societal benefits as more women will be able to participate in the workforce. The WHO estimates that this will help economic divisions and earn a return of $3.20 for every dollar invested.
“The fight against cervical cancer is also a fight for women’s rights: the unnecessary suffering caused by this preventable disease reflects the injustices that uniquely affect women’s health around the world,” Simelela said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will pose challenges to the implementation of the strategy, the WHO is encouraging all countries to ensure that vaccination, screening, and treatment can continue with the necessary precautions.