LUSAKA — Zambia has one of the highest cervical cancer rates in the world, with 90 out of every 100,000 women contracting the preventable disease. The government is now rolling out a program to vaccinate school girls against the Human Papilloma Virus - which causes cervical cancer. The Lusaka program is being quickly hailed as an early success.
Children attending a fourth-grade class at any primary school learned the country is Africa’s largest copper producer. But none have been taught the country tops the list of nations in the world with a high rate of cancer of the cervix.
Zambia is looking to change that by immunizing girls between the ages of 9 - 11 against the Human Papilloma Virus, which is the main cause of cervical cancer. The key is to vaccinate girls before they are sexually active, since that is how HPV is transmitted.
Zambia began rolling out the vaccination program in May at selected primary schools around the country.
Kalingalinga Primary School in the capital Lusaka is one of them, and here about 100 pre-teen girls have so far received the HPV vaccine.
Euphrasia Mweshi Mutale is a teacher and one of the people involved in sensitizing the community about what was expected to be a sensitive subject. She said she is happy with the results so far.
"In the first place we went for sensitization meeting with parents from the community and some teachers. We were sensitized on the goodness of the HPV vaccine. The response is quite overwhelming," she explained. "Almost 100 percent of the girls have been vaccinated.”
Mutale also attributes the initial success to the fact there have been no immediate reported side effects from the vaccine, such as a high fever or skin rash.
The co-director of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Program in Zambia, Dr. Mulindi Mwanahamuntu, said health authorities, working with co-operating partners, undertook to vaccinate 25,000 girls in the first phase.
“In the schools that were selected, so far we have vaccinated 96 percent of the intended target. Now that is a very good response," Mwanahamuntu said.
But the doctor noted the program will have to overcome some pockets of hesitancy to be fully effective.
“We still have resistance; we still have people that believe in myths. Now there are groups, I do not want to stigmatize groups, but there are groups of people, for example certain churches, that try to resist this. But also, there are cultural norms. The very fact that it is given to the pre-sexual years it would indicate to others that we are permitting children therefore to go out and have sex,” Mulindi said.
In an effort to combat misinformation, Zambian and international health officials are reaching out to communities in various ways.
U.N. physician and cancer activist Dr. Pelum-Hazeley, who hosts a regular local radio phone-in program called Celebrating Life, said she aims to educate her callers on the real benefits and potential side effects so they can make the right medical decisions for their children.
“We just have to continue educating the people because if someone has had a complication, and of course there are reasons why there are complications. It does not necessarily mean the same thing is going to happen here," Pelum-Hazeley explained. "Because I am a cancer activist and I believe, my intention, my aim is to help the people as much as possible to be educated and my emphasis is on prevention.”
The World Health Organization ranks Zambia as having the third highest mortality rate from cervical cancer and ranks highest in Africa. It strikes down women in their prime of life and yet it is an entirely preventable disease.
That is why Dr. Pelum-Hazeley and other health activists are working hard to make sure the HPV vaccination program is a success in Zambia.