Cameroon says more than 9 million girls aged 9 and above risk developing cervical cancer because their parents have been convinced the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine makes their daughters sterile. Some communities that had accepted the vaccination are now refusing it, claiming that what is being administered now are dangerous experimental COVID-19 vaccines. The government, doctors and female medical staff members are now working to convince parents the HPV vaccination reduces the risk of cervical cancer.
To counter misconceptions, groups of 20 young women move from market to market and through popular spots in Cameroon capital, Yaounde, sharing posters and tell Cameroonians that the HPV vaccine does not make girls sterile.
Among them is Linda Fonyuy, a 21-year-old mother.
"I for instance, I am giving my testimony that I received my vaccine as far back as 2014 and today, I am a mother of two."
Forty-year old fruit seller Gloria Amana says she is not convinced by Fonyuy.
She says she will not accept HPV vaccine because a lot of negative information about the vaccine has been circulating on social media platforms. She says she wants to be a grandmother, so she rejects any vaccine that would sterilize her daughters.
This month, Cameroon is implementing systematic use of the HPV vaccine. The effort was first launched in 2014 and has been in a demonstration phase since.
The government and organizations such as the Cameroon Medical Women Association organized the nationwide campaign to convince parents the HPV vaccine protects their children from cervical cancer.
Celine Mairousgou, coordinator of Cameroon’s Expanded Vaccination Program on the country’s northern border with Nigeria, says much controversy has been generated about the vaccine since Cameroon reported its first coronavirus case in March.
She says the first reason the vaccine has become controversial is that it is free. She says the vaccine is free because the government wants to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer among its citizens and that people should stop claiming that it is not an HPV vaccine, but anti-COVID-19 vaccines Western countries have paid to test in Cameroon. She says the vaccine is given before a girl’s first sexual encounter, when the virus that causes cervical cancer can be contracted.
Rose Leke, professor emeritus of immunology at the University of Yaounde, says the controversy reached its apex when, in a television discussion last April, two French doctors—one of them the head of an intensive-care unit in Paris—suggested trials for vaccines against COVID-19 should be conducted in Africa.
Leke says the HPV vaccine has nothing in common with what the French doctors proposed.
"Everybody should know that the government is working with UNICEF, and what comes here, I can assure you, is of good quality. People should ask themselves which government will go on to destroy its people? So, people should get that trust and I think the head of the communities and so on should also be responsible to take correct messages down to the communities," Leke said.
The government and its health partners say they are combating the coronavirus but not neglecting other life-threatening diseases. The government is asking organizations, lawmakers and medical staff members to convince people that vaccinations protect them, and that no vaccine is intended to kill or make girls sterile.
Cameroon’s Expanded Vaccination Program says 1,500 women in the central African country die each year of cervical cancer. About 11 million are targeted for vaccination, starting this month.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says HPV vaccination is recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls. It is also recommended for girls and women age 13 through 26 years old who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the vaccine series. The center says the vaccine can also be given to girls beginning at age 9 to protect against cancers caused by HPV.