Last month the Health ministry launched a nationwide campaign to vaccinate 10-year-old girls against human papillomavirus (HPV). For some, the HPV vaccine marked a milestone in the fight against cervical cancer, a disease that kills 3,286 women in Kenya annually.
Those opposed to the vaccine say it could have long term negative effects on girls. PAULINE ONGAJI talked to Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi) board chairperson Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on the vaccine’s safety.
Has the HPV vaccine been tested here?
Yes, it has been tested here in Kenya.
The vaccine has attractedscepticismm in Kenya with those opposed to it saying it can harm girls. Doctors and the Catholic Church have expressed concerns about it. Some mothers are reluctant to have their girls vaccinated. As a board member of Gavi, have you heard of these complaints?
No, I have not. For those who might be in doubt, I would like to state clearly that 113 countries worldwide are using it. In fact, there has been a shortage of this vaccine because the demand is very high. There is a demand for 80 million doses, but the manufacturer, Merck can only make 35 million.
If it was not safe as it is being claimed, why would people be rushing for it? We are trying so hard to make sure our children in Africa have it cheaply because those in developed countries are increasing their demands.
I am a colon cancer survivor and when it comes to cancer of any type, you should not fear taking a risk. If there was a colon cancer vaccine when I was young, I’m sure my parents would have allowed me to be vaccinated.
Why do you think people would be opposed to such a cause? I’m talking about all the information on the Internet about the supposed dangers of this vaccine.
There is a movement of people called Anti-vaxers; people who are against vaccines because of their own fears. Whenever a vaccine comes out, there are people who always think there are some side effects to it. This HPV vaccine has few or no effects and it has been proven to work efficaciously.
Which developed countries are already using it?
The US and countries in the whole of the European Union are all using these vaccines. In Africa, Rwanda was the first country to roll it out. Some other countries that have already rolled it out include Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Senegal and Malawi. It is good especially for Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe which contribute the highest number of cervical cancer deaths in Africa.
One would wonder why the launch in developing countries like Kenya has been publicised compared to the developing world where it is about immunising those who request it.
In the developed world, they don’t need a roll-out because they have been using it. Apart from that, such initiatives in the developing world make it easier for many girls to access the vaccine without paying for it.
Why 10-year-old girls while women are at risk of getting the disease?
At this age, young girls are being introduced into adulthood, thus this is the right time to prevent the problem before they reach that age of sexual curiosity. Apart from that, at this time, they get a chance to experience a one-on-one encounter with medical practitioners, which helps them get other services.
As a person of authority from Gavi tell us, is this vaccine safe for our girls?
It is safe, it saves the lives of girls. Give it!