Each year the, 4 February is marked as World Cancer Day; a time to discuss what humanity had reached in its fight against the disease all over the world.
Cervical cancer is one of the preventable forms of cancer. Nevertheless, to date, only four countries in the region offer the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as part of their national immunisation programme, providing the doses free of charge to their population.
National cervical cancer screening programs are only available in nine countries, many of which have insufficient rates of participation. If decisive action is not taken at the national and regional levels, the annual projected deaths due to cervical cancer alone could double across the MENA region by 2040, reaching almost 16,000 deaths per year.
This World Cancer Day, we must galvanise efforts to get cervical cancer elimination efforts on track. It is also a moment for us to celebrate the recent launch of the Regional Cervical Cancer Elimination Strategy. Driven by the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office of the WHO. The strategy serves as a clear marker that cervical cancer must be a priority in the region, echoing the global key targets while providing technical tools adapted to the religious, cultural, social, economic and geographical contexts from across the region.
The regional strategy follows the historic commitment made in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when WHO member states adopted the Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer.
This strategy details key targets that will accelerate progress towards cervical cancer elimination in 2030 including an increase of HPV vaccination to 90 percent, twice-lifetime cervical screening to 70 percent, and treatment of pre-invasive lesions and invasive cancer to 90 percent (also known as the 90-70-90 targets).
More than 95 percent of cervical cancer cases are due to HPV, making cervical cancer stand out among other cancers as its elimination is possible by preventing the transmission of the virus through vaccination. With the first HPV vaccine made available in 2006, there is over 16 years of evidence demonstrating the safety and efficacy of HPV vaccines, with a 97 percent effectiveness rate in preventing cervical cancer and cell changes that could lead to cancer.
Although the momentum is growing regionally, stronger efforts to address financial barriers and drive cervical cancer elimination goals are needed more than ever.
The high cost of treatment for cervical cancer cases, coupled with the social and economic costs of women dying from this preventable disease, make the case for governments to invest in prevention and elimination efforts now, especially in limited-resource settings where vaccination is highly cost-effective.
Furthermore, WHO estimates that $26 will be returned to the economy for every dollar invested in cervical cancer prevention thanks to increased women’s workforce participation and benefits of their improved health on families, communities and societies.
In addition, it is important to acknowledge the social and cultural barriers around cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination uptake in our region that remain key challenges.
While cervical cancer’s treatability is high when detected early compared to other types of cancer, insufficient awareness among the general population in the MENA region hinders the prevention efforts. This leads many women to refer to a healthcare provider when the cancer is symptomatic at advanced stages. Awareness raising efforts are therefore crucial, not only for women and parents but also among health providers.
January marked Cervical Cancer Awareness month, a time to celebrate the momentum that is growing in our region to drive HPV and cervical cancer elimination goals. We must build on this momentum to amplify the importance of cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination efforts.
On this World Cancer Day, let us come together to push for more resources to improve access to screening and vaccination. By prioritizing cervical cancer efforts, we are choosing a healthier future for the MENA region and beyond.
*Dr. Karima El-Shamy is the Founder and Executive Director, Egyptian Society for Promotion Of Women's Health, Egypt and member of the MENA Coalition for HPV Elimination