BLANTYRE - Malawi officials say the country has the world's highest rate of cervical cancer, but only two oncologists serving the nation of 17 million people. In an effort to reduce cervical cancer deaths, the government has rolled out a massive vaccine campaign against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.
The immunization project follows a pilot effort in two districts between 2013 and 2015.
The campaign is run with funding from the Global Alliance on Vaccines and is expected to reach 1.5 million girls between the ages of 9 and 14 across the country.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, is among organizations implementing the project.
"The disease starts when you engage in sexual behavior and contract a virus we call human papilloma virus that causes cancer slowly, over time," said Steve Macheso, an immunization specialist for UNICEF in Malawi. "So we are trying to catch the girls early before their sexual debut so that when even they contract human papilloma virus, the virus does not cause cancer when they grow up."
Other organizations supporting the effort are the World Health Organization and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
Health experts say cervical cancer causes the largest number of cancer deaths among women in Malawi.
"For the whole Malawi, we are talking about close to 3,600 new cases every year. And over 2,000 of these women die from this kind of cancer every year. This is the highest number of cervical cancer cases in the world," said Dr. Leo Masamba, one of only two oncologists in Malawi.
Masamba says results of the HPV vaccination effort will not be felt for decades.
"In between, whilst we are waiting for those 10 to 30 years, there will still be quite a lot of cervical cancer cases coming from people that have already been infected with HPV now. We need to make sure that treatments are still available, and other interventions like palliative care is still available," Masamba said.
Loveness Kalanda is happy that her 9-year-old daughter will be vaccinated.
"I wish if it was possible, government should have considered vaccination for us older women because this disease is not selective," she said, adding that she wished there were another way to protect older women from the disease.
Jonathan Chiwanda, the national cancer coordinator in the Ministry of Health, told reporters in the capital, Lilongwe, that measures are in place to tackle the disease.
"All along we have been doing surgeries, we have been offering chemotherapy. We have also been giving antiretroviral drugs with help from remission for the Kaposi sarcoma (type of cancer)," he said.
In addition, he said, the government will soon open its first-ever cancer center in Lilongwe, which will be offering radiotherapy and other treatment to patients.