By Itoro Usoro
In a significant stride towards combating cervical cancer, the Federal Government of Nigeria through the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) has rolled out a vaccination program for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The launch of the HPV vaccine is very timely as it came after months of relentless campaigning as a Nguvu Collective Change Leader. In my petition, which is now a victory, I asked the government to include HPV vaccination in our routine immunization program drawing from an experience of personal loss and because of its potential benefit to young girls and the future of Nigeria.
Why is a young man from Akwa Ibom State advocating for the HPV vaccine you wonder? Well, I only got to know about cervical cancer when my Mom was diagnosed with it four years ago, and she died 6 months later despite emptying my savings and borrowing money to pay for her treatment. I was in school that day when I was told that she had been rushed to the hospital. I didn’t believe it was true until I saw her lifeless body. My Mom could have been saved if she got the HPV vaccine as a young girl.
In Nigeria, there are 12,000 cervical cancer cases diagnosed annually, with 8,000 deaths recorded. This translates to 22 women dying from cervical cancer every day in our country and this is quite alarming!
Four years later, the pain of losing my mother is still fresh in my mind. In her memory, I started Help the Woman Foundation to help women and girls in Nigeria to detect and prevent cervical cancer. So far, my organisation has reached over 4,000 women across Nigeria through rural and urban outreaches. I have collaborated with religious organisations, radio stations, educational institutions, community leaders, and hospitals to conduct free screening and counselling for women in hard-to-reach communities. This is why the HPV vaccine launch means a lot to me.
The HPV vaccine protects against human papillomavirus, which causes 95% of cervical cancers. If we can protect women from HPV, we can eliminate almost all types of this often-deadly cancer. Research has shown that the best means of protection is vaccinating girls between the ages of 9 and 14.
Nigeria is aiming to reach 7.7 million girls through the first round of immunization, the largest number in a single round of HPV vaccination in the African region. However, it’s important to note that the launch is just the first step. To combat high vaccine hesitancy in Nigeria as a result of the conspiracy theories that followed the COVID-19 vaccine, a lot of sensitization still needs to be done across rural communities in the country and all stakeholders need to come together to ensure high adoption.
If my mother could speak to us now, she would call on parents and guardians across the country to give their girl child this life-saving opportunity before it is too late. Every woman deserves the best!
Itoro Usoro is the Founder of ‘Help the Woman’ Foundation. He is also a Nguvu Collective Change Leader based in Uyo, Nigeria.