THE anti-vaccine campaigns waged by American right-wing conspiracy theorists, none of whom has a medical degree, now threaten to kill a lot of Zimbabwean women in decades to come through their attempts to stop vaccination for the human papilloma virus, the main cause of cervical cancer in women.
Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer found in adult women, and the main cause is this HPV virus, although there are other possibilities.
As a virus, the principal defence is obviously vaccination, and in recent years safe and effective vaccines have been developed. Unfortunately these vaccines have to be administered to girls aged between 10 and 14 to be fully effective, although diminishing benefits are possible with women up to age 26.
This is long before the girls enter the main at-risk groups of mature women, and it involves their parents who, at the very least, should not object when Grade 7s or Form 1s are lined up for vaccination.
It should be totally routine, just as all those vaccinations now available that have come close to wiping out a wide range of childhood illnesses that once caused so much suffering, pain and death.
The conspiracy theorists have targeted HPV vaccination as a secret way of vaccinating against Covid-19, and they believe that Covid-19 vaccination is evil and unnecessary, hence the fact that the US has one of the highest death rates in the world from Covid-19 in proportion to its population.
This requires two conspiracies, the one involving Covid-19 vaccination itself, seen by the most outlandish of the objectors to be some sort of scheme to take over the world by evil powers, and then linking Covid-19 vaccinations to HPV vaccinations. The double drift through the maze of conspiracy is almost breathtaking.
The result could well be more Zimbabwean women in decades to come coming down with cervical cancer. Admittedly, the screening process, now well established in Zimbabwe and pushed hard by many in the medical field and outside it as a way of detecting the cancer early when it is easily treatable, will help catch these cases, as it catches the cases in mature women who never had the option of vaccination when they were much younger.
But it would be far easier for a woman in years to come to walk out of a test centre with a happy smile after a negative result, simply because she had responsible parents who were jolly grateful that the Government had lined up the vaccine for their daughter as she passed from primary school to high school.
In all the misinformation about vaccines, people need to look at the factual information passed out by medical professionals.
We spend a lot of money educating some of our brightest and most committed young people as doctors, and then encouraging them to advance their education with ever more training.
So our doctors are not just people who read WhatsApp messages, but people who can read, and understand, what vaccination does and does not do.
And they are 100 percent in favour of vaccination whenever a vaccine exists, and new ones are being continually developed as scientists around the world target more diseases to conquer.
One of the reasons is that medical professionals care. Every disease that is conquered, or at least every disease where the effects can be ameliorated, is one less danger for their patients.
For a doctor, telling the grey-haired children of a 95-year-old that their mother is fading fast and then consoling them when she dies is one thing; it is in the natural order of things. But to tell a patient in the prime of life that they have three months to live, or telling parents that their little child is dead, is something that they all want to avoid.
And when there is a way to avoid this, by vaccinating where the vaccine exists at the ages where this is most effective, they obviously want to push this very hard.
They themselves are vaccinated against just about everything where the vaccine exists, and you can be sure their daughters are vaccinated against HPV in their early teens.
There have always been anti-vaxxers, but until this century they were identified largely as mistaken people who believed that vaccination was interfering in nature or God’s will and letting people doomed to die staying healthy and living long lives.
This century saw the conspiracy theories and they have done far more damage. People who call in an electrician when an appliance gives them a shock, rather than seeking assistance from someone unskilled in the street, somehow reject the advice of highly-educated experts.
They can do this for themselves if they are adults making an informed choice, but sacrificing the lives of their children on the altar of a conspiracy theorist moves the whole debate into a quite different, and far darker realm.
Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry has built up a range of strategies to ensure all children are vaccinated against the once-common childhood killers, now almost all heading for eradication although liable to break out if enough people reject vaccines.
We saw this in the conquest of the recent outbreak of measles, with community health workers and flexible vaccination hours being at the forefront.
With HPV vaccination other strategies might be needed, given the fact that a girl needs to be vaccinated some years before she enters the main danger zone for cervical cancer. So there is some hard grind ahead for those who run the programmes, to nullify the fake theories passed around and to get all girls into line. We all need to back them.