Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

Protecting her 13-year-old daughter, Jamsetta Kumeh, from human papillomavirus (HPV) overrode Buludi Martin’s reservations about the vaccine that prevents the infection that can cause cervical cancer. Today she is content that she made the correct decision.

“I was afraid, of course,” she admits. “There are so many stories about vaccines, and I wasn’t sure if it was safe, but when I understood it protects against cervical cancer, I knew it was the right choice and it will protect Jamsetta for the future,” says Martin.

Now, her daughter is encouraging vaccination among her friends at the Dya Wulu Cooperative Learning Centre in Rehab, one of the schools where eligible learners are being immunized against HPV on-site.  “Now I’m just happy. I feel good as the vaccine means protection for me,” says Jamsetta. 

Experiencing the devastation of cervical cancer encouraged the centre’s leadership to get behind the vaccination programme. School administrator Leona Kokylo knows all too well the impact of cervical cancer. In 2023, she lost her aunt to the disease. “Seeing her suffer was unbearable for us as a family, knowing that her situation was hopeless,” says Kokylo. “But now, there’s hope.”  

In Liberia, cervical cancer is the leading cancer among women, followed by breast cancer, making it the primary cause of female cancer-related deaths. According to the country’s HPV Information Centre, women between the ages of 15 and 44 are at particularly high risk. To address this significant health threat, Liberia has integrated the HPV vaccine into routine immunization, alongside other measures such as cervical cancer screening and treatment. 

The primary focus of vaccination is girls aged nine to 14, with the aim of providing protection before the onset of sexual activity. Launched in November 2019, the vaccination initiative has successfully reached over 242 000 eligible girls, with 48% receiving the first dose and 26% completing the two-dose series. With this coverage, Liberia is making steady progress towards achieving the 90% HPV vaccination target for the eligible population by 2030. The ongoing efforts underscore the commitment needed to further expand vaccination coverage and ultimately reduce the prevalence of cervical cancer in Liberia. 

Government efforts are being supported by World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF and other partners. The most recent WHO data shows that in Liberia, an estimated 470 women died of cervical cancer in 2020 and a further 639 new cases were diagnosed – about 26 cases per 100 000 women.

The frontline heroes ensuring successful uptake of the HPV vaccine are dedicated health care workers like Beatrice Boimah, a trained nurse at the Duport Road Clinic, across town from Jamsetta’s school. They play a key role in educating and reassuring parents.

“I explain to them that the vaccine protects against cancer, which we call ‘bleeding’ in our language. When some parents are hesitant, I tell them that this is a lifesaving opportunity for their children and that if my own children were eligible, they would be vaccinated,” Boimah says, adding that she is proud to be a vaccinator and grateful to be part of this important initiative.

Adolphus Clark, manager of the Liberia Health Ministry’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), is upbeat about the collaboration between the various players. “Witnessing the remarkable collaboration between health care workers, educators, parents and communities to ensure this vaccine reaches every eligible girl, is heartening. Together, we are rewriting the narrative of cervical cancer in Liberia, one dose at a time,” he says.

Dr Abdulahi Suleiman, EPI Team Lead at WHO Liberia, says Liberia is one of the countries in Africa pioneering the rollout, with support from WHO, UNICEF, Gavi and other partners, to see the HPV vaccine integrated into routine immunization protocols. “As WHO, we’re thrilled to see girls in Liberia being able to access this lifesaving vaccine. This is an investment in the future of Liberia’s daughters, mothers and leaders. Every girl vaccinated is a life empowered, a family protected and a future brightened,” he says.

WHO and partners are committed to reaching 86 million girls globally with the HPV vaccine by 2025. In Africa, this collaborative effort has already facilitated the introduction of the vaccine in 27 countries to date and the establishment of 34 screening programmes.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of World Health Organization (WHO).

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