Awareness and diagnosis of common cancers remains a huge challenge to many unsuspecting Nigerians. Most deaths from all forms of cancer occur because they were not detected early enough. Late detection is the bane of many developing countries because of weak healthcare systems that lack a screening policy and accurate diagnostic tools. As social media expands in our country, we are confronted daily with graphic pictures of cancer patients on a media campaign for financial assistance. As a serving governor’s wife with an NGO that focuses on cancer, I invariably get sent such cases often in multitude. 90% of the time we can only offer palliative support. I wish we can channel the effort and resources used to propagate late cases on creating awareness earlier.
Cancer morbidity and mortality can be reduced if early diagnosis is made and timely treatment instituted. This aspect of cancer care thus presents a huge concern for government and other health stakeholders and underscores the need to have more cancer diagnostic centres with properly trained staff.
I’m particularly concerned about the status of women when it comes to cancers. Of the various forms of female cancers in Nigeria, cervical and breast cancer have consistently remained the highest reported ones. Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in Nigeria and it is also the second most common among women between 15 and 44 years of age. Every year, over 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 8000 women die from the disease. These young girls and women need not die because cervical cancer is preventable with a vaccine.
Researchers have developed a vaccine for cervical cancer called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine. It has already been used in developed countries like the United States and has been showing increasing success. According to findings published by the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., HPV vaccine brought down the occurrence of cervical cancer by 64% in females between the ages 14 to 19 years, and by 34% between young women aged 20 to 24 years. This is great news for developing countries like Nigeria where screenings are still a challenge.
Plans are currently underway by the Nigerian government to include the HPV vaccine into the routine immunization schedule within the next 3 years. However, this is subject to available funding from the government. It is no surprise that the routine immunization programme has brought much succour, productivity and improvement to the lives of millions of Nigerians. We are almost on the verge of wiping out polio in the country. What we need is political will. What we need is more funding. The return on investment for immunization is over 40 times the cost of vaccination.
Thus we need to ensure that government allocates adequate funds for health and immunization in subsequent budgets. Where we as citizens need to start is to understand the value of vaccines and know our right to demand these immunization services. We must advocate to all and sundry, especially those who have the influence to make the HPV vaccine a reality in our country. With the HPV vaccines in place, it will save money and time for our industrious mothers and daughters. Families will be more healthy and productive. There wouldn’t be any fear of cervical cancer infection, its debilitating effects and the resultant deaths.
We started the Medicaid Radio-Diagnostic Centre to contribute to lowering cancer morbidity and mortality caused by the paucity of diagnostic tools in the country. In addition, the Medicaid Cancer Foundation serves to create awareness on common cancers and also provides financial support for their diagnosis and treatment. I am a vaccine champion under the Women Advocates for Vaccine Access (WAVA) and I know what value we can bring to the lives of women and girls through vaccines. We can achieve a lot more reduced infections and deaths with the introduction of the HPV vaccine.
A single vial of the HPV vaccine carries a massive potential to protect a Nigerian life. We can save more women from cervical cancer and other deadly vaccine-preventable diseases if we do what is right and appropriate adequate funding for these vaccines in our routine immunization programme. We are on the cusp of another success story for Nigerians. Let’s make this work and put an end to cervical cancer.
Dr. Zainab Shinkafi-Bagudu, wife of Kebbi State governor and Founder, Medicaid Cancer Foundation.