A recent post on a social media group with a huge following sought Kenyans’ take on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine amid the controversy that it has sparked among some Catholics.
It elicited baffling comments, including how the vaccine will sterilise Kenyan girls and in five years we will have a generation that is barren; it is a murder weapon; it will cause autism and brain damage; individuals aim to profiteer from its rollout; and some tribes are quite celibate while others are very promiscuous and the maidenly ones will not require to vaccinate their young girls.
Sadly, as the Ministry of Health plans to start vaccinating girls aged 10 in a few weeks, it has failed to educate the masses and quell the very loud voices of misleading anti-HPV vaccine campaigners.
‘Cancer advocates’ with a huge social media following are asking patients to stop chemotherapy treatment as it will kill them, or avoid surgery since it fuels spread of cancer.
Amid a knowledge gap, rumours thrive. The information vacuum has left a huge portion of the population at the mercy of patient advocates who know zilch about cancer science and naysayers bitter about an ailing health system.
Despite most Kenyans on social media being literate, few want to research on the HPV vaccine, which has eradicated cervical cancer in parts of the world, or that Kenya is the last East African county still vaccinating girls as Rwanda almost wipes out cervical cancer, thanks to the vaccine.
With few or no doctors in some online groups, the voice of reason is often muffled by the far-fetched ideas of anti-vaccine and -treatment campaigners.
Vaccine hesitancy is not unique to Kenya, but in this country the Church and social media will play a big role in inflaming it.
They will be powerful in shaping health behaviours, including early screening of the disease that kills more than nine Kenyan women daily, according to World Health Organisation data.
Many Kenyans trust their clergy, medicinemen and social media influencers more than anyone else.
Should the Church shift the debate on cervical cancer, a sexually transmitted disease, to chastity and fidelity, the faithful may be hesitant to have their daughters immunised since “children who are chaste and faithful adults are not at risk”!
Much as we bury our heads in the sand, we know that children are engaging in exploratory sex or doing it due to coercion.
While doing research on the use of contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health of the youth about 20 years ago, I met a 13-year-old girl in one of the remotest areas in rural Kenya, where one would think ‘sexual immorality’ is uncommon.
I asked her how many sexual partners she had had as my pen hovered over the ‘none’ box on the questionnaire.
She told me, “Let me count.” Peering at the questionnaire, she added, “Tick more.”
I asked her again, “How many partners?” She told me six. I teared up. Shocked, she innocently asked me, “Is the number too high?”
Often, I meet a woman in her 20s with cervical cancer and remember the teenage girl, who should be in her early 30s.
Did her early sex debut and multiple sex partners put her at risk of cervical cancer? If she had had the vaccine, then the wrong choices in her adolescence will not haunt her in adulthood.
Cervical cancer is a growing health and economic burden. Women of reproductive age are dying in shame of an easily preventable disease.
At free screening camps, at least 10 women are found to have abnormal cells in the cervix.
Kenya, like other 119 countries, is finally taking steps to tame this public health crisis through a mass HPV vaccination of schoolgirls — our only bet for a cervical cancer-free generation in future.
Fear, low health literacy, fatalism and false beliefs play strong roles in taming an epidemic.
When HIV and Aids was shrouded in myths in the 1980s, it wiped out families who refused to seek treatment.
There are Kenyans who think cancer is witchcraft or a generational curse. Health professionals need to be more proactive about discrediting such false information, especially on the internet.
Ms Mwango is the editor of ‘BD Life’ magazine at ‘Business Daily’. [email protected]