A new vaccine initiative aimed at vaccinating 800,000 girls per year for the foreseeable future launched in Kenya last October and health officials are saying that women’s involvement in the campaign is at the core of its success.
The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the role of women-led groups in the roll out of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, which it says was a success.
“With cervical cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in Kenya, the role of women in taking responsibility of their own health cannot be underestimated,” Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe, the regional immunization officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, told Global Citizen.
“Women must work in the interest of fellow women,” she said, adding that it is a challenge “under the patriarchal value system,” but is essential in helping girls access the vaccine.
The vaccine, offered free of charge at public and private health facilities countrywide, is administered in two doses to girls above the age of 10, in an effort to prevent HPV strains that cause most cervical cancers. Nomadic groups were reached by health workers, who provided the HPV vaccinations and will continue to do so moving forward.
A statement from Kenya’s Ministry of Health referred to the launch of the vaccine as a “milestone in the history of Kenya to join the fight along with other countries of the region and the world to prevent mortality and morbidity due to cervical cancer.”
According to the ministry, cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women in the country. HPV is the leading cause of cancer in women in Kenya between the ages of 15 and 44 and over 5,000 new cases are diagnosed annually. This leads to nine women in Kenya dying every day from cervical cancer, making East Africa the region with the highest burden of cervical cancer in the world.
Congratulations to Kenya for rolling out the #HPV vaccine against cervical cancer! This is a vital step towards protecting women, saving lives and allowing more women to reach their full potential. #VaccinesWorkhttps://t.co/AaaB0aOaVa— Gavi (@gavi) October 18, 2019
Groups such as Women 4 Cancer Early Detection and Treatment have been instrumental in the uptake of the vaccine. The women-led non-governmental organization is on a mission to demystify cancer and ensure people are taking preventative measures to protect themselves.
Leading up to the launch of the immunization initiative, Women 4 Cancer Early Detection and Treatment trained 70 champions across the country — including survivors of cervical cancer — to address concerns about the vaccine at a community level.
“We thought parents would not be motivated because they have no knowledge of the vaccine and cervical cancer,” Benda Kithaka, co-founder of the organization, told Global Citizen. “What we found out is that parents heard about the vaccine through media, but they didn’t hear about what the vaccine is for, the dosage, where to get it.”
According to Kithaka, parents and caregivers want to give their children protective and preventive health care as much as possible, but basic questions about the vaccine were common.
“One of the questions [we were being asked] was: Why are we not vaccinating boys?” she said.
Kithaka also explained that parents had questions about potential side effects of the vaccine because of negative press.
“The anti-vax movement was very strong in saying this vaccine is not safe. The way we address this is by having clear, simple messaging that our trained leaders disseminated — that the vaccine is safe, effective, and available at no cost to the girls, and it is given in two doses. So [our message was] clear, memorable, and straight to the point,” Kithaka said.
At the launch of the vaccine campaign, President Uhuru Kenyatta called out the anti-vax movement.
“Let us not fight science. Let us respond to questions, discuss, and agree because we all want a right and prosperous future for our children,” Kenyatta said.
In addition to women-led groups and survivors playing an essential role in the campaign, women parliamentarians have “shaped the conversations on cancer,” Kithaka said, as they have mobilized key decision-makers and mobilized resources for the campaign.
First ladies from counties across Kenya were also involved in the vaccination campaign.
“They have an ear on the ground to dispel myths and they are considered the mothers of the country, they have a voice in ensuring [girls are vaccinated],” Kithaka said.
On Jan. 30, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta launched the country’s national guide on elimination of cervical cancer.
“The aim is to have 90% of girls fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine, 70% of eligible women screened, and 90% of women identified with pre-cancer or cancer treated appropriately,” Kenyatta said during the country’s national cervical cancer awareness week.
The rollout of the vaccine follows an HPV vaccine pilot program in Kitui County, in the eastern region of the country, held from 2013 to 2015. Kenya is the twelfth African country to introduce the vaccine into its routine immunization schedule.
According to global health organization Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, HPV is highly transmissible and infection is very common. The organization also states that HPV vaccines can prevent up to 90% of all cervical cancer cases.
“In developing countries like Kenya, where women often lack access to cancer screening and treatment services, immunizing girls before exposure to HPV is critical,” Gavi notes.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, according to the WHO. In 2018, there were an estimated 9.6 million deaths due to the disease, with cervical cancer being one of the most common among women.