The first time 48-year-old Jane Wainaina heard about the human papilloma virus, she didn’t think much of it.
The mother of four had lived a relatively healthy life with few episodes of illness, and didn’t think she was one of those who should be screened. Moreover, the test described by a community health worker sounded embarrassing.
She set the information aside until two years later, when she attended a forum organised by the Women 4 Cancer Early Detection and Treatment (W4C), a non-governmental organisation that creates awareness on cervical cancer and offers free screening to women in rural areas.
“They explained the procedure, and seeing nothing to be afraid of, this time I decided to get tested,” she recalls. The test returned positive.
“It was a shocking diagnosis. I was not experiencing any pain or discomfort,” narrates the small-scale farmer from Kiambu County, who was referred to Nairobi Hospital for further tests.
The cervical cancer diagnosis was confirmed. It was early stage cancer (Stage 1) and doctors recommended that her uterus be removed (hysterectomy) as part of treatment.
“I did not object because I was nearing menopause anyway, and I already had children,” she says.
Her uterus was removed in November 2014 at St Mary’s Hospital in Lang’ata, Nairobi, and the Sh27,000 bill was footed by W4C, the NGO that encouraged her to get tested. Within a fortnight, Ms Wainaina had recovered, was pain-free and ready to become a crusader for regular screening for early detection of pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (birth canal) for treatment.
She shares her story in her village, church, chief’s barazas, and at every opportunity, telling women that when caught early, cervical cancer can be cured. In her pursuits, she has met women whose cancer was caught a tad too late, something Anne Ng’ang’a, the head of the National Cancer Control Programme, says is common.
“While cervical cancer is easily detectable and curable in the early stages, most women are diagnosed late when treatment options are limited if not costly,” says Dr Nganga. Currently, it costs between Sh172,000 and Sh759,000 to treat cervical cancer without surgery; and between Sh672,000 and Sh1.25 million, if treatment involves surgery, according to researchers affiliated with the National Cancer Control Programme and the National Cancer Institute.
This has locked out many women from low-income households, who can’t afford treatment, which is possibly why the cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Kenya, killing more than 3,000 women every year.
This is despite the cancer being preventable (using a vaccine) and curable if caught and treated early, thanks to regular screening. However, only 16 per cent of Kenyan women have been screened for cervical cancer.
Now the government is adding another weapon to the arsenal – vaccination of girls before they become sexually active – to help fight against HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer after persistent infection), which is sexually transmitted. The vaccination drive targeting girls aged nine to 14 years is set to begin in May.
Before national rollout of vaccination, the government will begin a public awareness and education campaign from March on the decision to vaccinate girls against a sexually transmitted virus. The campaign is expected to address concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccine, and any fears parents and caregivers might have about getting their girls vaccinated.
“The average age of sexual debut for girls in Kenya is 15 years. We need to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active and get exposed to the human papilloma virus which is transmitted during sex and causes cervical cancer. Once they are older than age 14, quite a number will be sexually active and the vaccine will not offer them protection,” says Dr Ng’ang’a.
Speaking at the launch of the just-ended National Cancer Awareness Week at the Kenyatta National Hospital on January 21, Head of the Division of Non-communicable Diseases Gladwell Gathecha, called on men to take a more active role in the fight against cervical cancer, by taking their wives for testing, and ensuring their daughters get vaccinated.
By 2010, the World Health Organisation hopes that member states will have 90 per cent of girls vaccinated against HPV by age 15; 70 per cent of women screened for cervical cancer by age 35 and treated if the test is positive; and that there will be a 30 per cent reduction in cervical cancer deaths.