Global Health|March 08, 2021

#ChooseToChallenge Cervical Cancer on International Women’s Day

Andrea Ackerman, Senior Project Manager, Scalable Solutions

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The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. It calls on us to “choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality to help forge an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge.”

On this #IWD21 let us choose to challenge cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a devastating illustration of the impact of inequality on women’s health. We know how to intervene to save women’s lives, yet cervical cancer remains the fourth most common cancer among women globally despite the proliferation of a vaccine to combat the Human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancers. The vaccine, along with other health services and policy tools, makes eliminating cervical cancer with effective, low-cost tools possible even in the poorest parts of the world.

In 2020, an estimated 604,237 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, representing 6.5% of all female cancers, with an estimated 341,843 deaths. Many of which could have been prevented. Women in less-developed regions represent 90% of those deaths, a glaring indication of the inequality of this disease.

To build a more gender just, equitable future, we need cross-movement and multi-stakeholder collaboration to save lives and improve the quality of life for thousands of women. This includes eliminating cervical cancer deaths. However, many obstacles stand in the way such as a lack of awareness about the disease, unequal access to health services, and a glaring shortage of funding to scale prevention tools and strategies.

TogetHER for Health is a group of advocates and implementers building a world where no woman dies from cervical cancer. They are a global partnership focused on bold action and mobilizing the world to end cervical cancer. TogetHER has been working since 2017 to advance cervical cancer elimination through identifying key issues and leveraging global connections to get programs implemented and scaled up in low-resource settings. Panorama has partnered with TogetHER since its inception, serving as their fiscal sponsor and providing infrastructure so that the TogetHER team can focus on advocacy, grants, and partnerships to improve care practices around the world.

You can read more about who they are and how we can all build a world where no woman dies from cervical cancer in TogetHER for Health’s Impact Report.

TogetHER for Health

A key focus for TogetHER is to share the stories of women, families, and communities affected by the disease. In Kenya, cervical cancer is a leading cause of cancer death among women as a result of inadequate access to screening and treatment services.

Kenya - TogetHER

While cervical cancer may affect all women, those living with HIV are even more vulnerable to the disease. TogetHER first learned of Jackie’s story in 2018, a mother of two living with both HIV and cervical cancer in Nairobi. As told in their impact report and Faces of Hope series, “Though Jackie’s cancer is now in remission, her situation could have been avoided if cervical cancer screening had been part of the standard care for HIV. Integrating HIV and cervical cancer services at the same site is convenient for patients and improves quality of care.”

A major hurdle to preventing cervical cancer in Kenya is a low level of awareness of the critical role that preventive care plays. Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer, as long as it is detected early and managed effectively. Through widespread distribution of HPV vaccines for adolescent girls and cervical screening for women 30 years and older, entire generations of girls and women can be protected against this disease. Without adequate prevention measures in place, many women are found at advanced stages of the disease because of late detection, when treatment or cure is no longer an option.

While Kenya rolled out a nationwide HPV vaccination campaign in 2019, there is much to be done to raise awareness in the country and throughout the region. TogetHER in partnership with Scope Impact, a social impact company whose work centers health, gender, and equality, are now launching a Cervical Cancer Prevention project to collaborate with numerous local community organizations and activists through “co-designing a creative communications campaign and influence model for cervical cancer awareness that can be scaled within Kenya and across East Africa.”

Their work in Kenya is just one example of how TogetHER harnesses the power of partnerships as they work to overcome the political and financial barriers to developing cutting-edge cervical cancer prevention technologies and strategies. Local organizations working to prevent and treat cervical cancer are the experts on what is happening in their communities, and in addition to building robust relationships with those groups, TogetHER recognizes the role of international organizations, public health officials, and the entire civil society ecosystem in ending preventable cervical cancer deaths.

Solving pressing global problems requires the cooperation of many actors working to build deep trust between one another, and TogetHER encompasses this through fostering global alliances that range from grassroots groups to large multi-national institutions.

As we turn a corner on COVID-19 in the U.S. and vaccinations are being rolled out across the globe, it is hard to dismiss how acutely issues of public health and access to care impact our daily lives. Even more apparent are the stark inequities across race, gender, and class when it comes to access to preventative services and medical treatments. Women are paying a disproportionately high price for the COVID-19 pandemic, with women of color bearing the brunt of economic and healthcare injustice.

“Build Back Better” is a mantra employed by global leaders, including President Biden, to signal that we must recover from the pandemic in a sustainable way, and to do this we must engage in and repair structural inequities. TogetHER and 21 partner organizations have called on President Biden to lead on eliminating cervical cancer through building on existing efforts to promote HPV vaccination, as well as cervical screening and treatment.

The Biden-Harris administration has made healthcare a priority during the transition, and now in their first 100 days. According to the National Cancer Institute, “data shows cervical cancer is more common among Latina and Black women than women of other racial and ethnic groups and is deadlier for Black women than any other group.” It will be critical to hold policymakers and funders accountable to resource communities of color as we in the U.S. are reconciling with impacts of colonization and white supremacy on our healthcare and economic infrastructures, resulting in preventable deaths.

There continues to be a pervasive lack of funding and attention paid to cervical cancer research and prevention across governments and in philanthropy, from institutional donors to individuals. As TogetHER co-founder and board chair Kathy Vizas states, “what stands in the way of eliminating this preventable and treatable disease is a lack of knowledge, urgency, and — above all — funding.”

To ensure there is adequate availability and dissemination of preventative services that save women’s lives, a strong bench of actors must come together to lead. TogetHER has developed annual reports to highlight critical funding gaps in global cervical cancer prevention and control. To achieve broader systemic change and eradicate cervical cancer deaths, there must be structural investments into healthcare systems that are just. The means to prevent and treat cervical cancer are effective, affordable, and scalable with sufficient political and financial support.

TogetHER for Health and their network are building a global movement that can eliminate cervical cancer deaths for good, ensuring women can live long, healthy lives. So let us #ChooseToChallenge cervical cancer this #IWD21.

For more information on TogetHER for Health and how you can support their mission, please contact TogetHER’s Executive Director, Dr. Heather White, at [email protected]


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