Rumbidzayi Zinyuke Senior Health Reporter
ANTIVAXERS and their conspiracy theories, who were active when Covid-19 vaccines were introduced, have hampered the roll-out of the vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV), a major cause of cervical cancer.
Cancer of the cervix is the most common type of cancer in Zimbabwe accounting for 39,2 percent of the total number of cancer cases in 2018. Yet the easiest and best way of fighting this cancer is to vaccinate all teenage girls routinely before they become sexually active.
So Zimbabwe introduced the HPV vaccine to girls aged 10-14 in 2018 with a success rate of about 95 percent.
But then the conspiracy theories on social media when Covid-19 vaccine came saw a slowdown in the uptake of the HPV vaccine as well. Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories are largely driven by those Americans who believe all vaccination is evil, and these fake theories spread during Covid-19.
Dr Sydney Mukonoweshuro, a general practitioner, said Zimbabwe had been the eighth African country to adopt the HPV vaccine, a development which had placed the country high among the countries implementing strategies to end cervical cancer.
He was speaking during a cervical cancer awareness symposium organised by the Association of Therapy Radiographers in conjunction with Harare Institute of Technology and the Radiography Association of Zimbabwe in the capital yesterday.
“We have had a huge run in terms of success of the HPV vaccination programme. But when Covid-19 came with its own vaccine, which was surrounded with a lot of conspiracy theories, we began to get some parents who were doubting that the HPV vaccine was actually that and not the Covid-19 vaccine.
“So we are now dealing with a social issue of misinformation when it comes to the HPV vaccine which is the most important intervention towards fighting cancer of the cervix,” Dr Mukonoweshuro said.
“What needs to happen is an education programme for people and parents to understand that the HPV vaccine is very safe, it is not related in any way to Covid-19 and that they should encourage all the young girls to actually get vaccinated.”
While the vaccine is ideally administered to girls between the ages of 10 to 14 who are not yet sexually active, it can still be given to women up to the age 26.
Dr Mukonoweshuro said even women up to the age 40 could still get the vaccine but their chances of acquiring immunity would have diminished significantly with age.
For sexually active older women, he said, the most effective cervical cancer prevention method was screening to ensure early detection and treatment.
“We are ranked number four in the world in terms of the incidence and burden of cancer of the cervix globally and the vaccine can lower that number. No one has to die of cancer of the cervix because it is absolutely preventable, 95 percent of the burden of disease can be eradicated,” Dr Mukonoweshuro said.
Speaking at the same event, radiation oncologist at Parirenyatwa Hospital radiation centre Dr Kudzai Makova said although the benefits of HPV vaccine would take years to be seen, it was the most fool proof way of reducing the burden of cervical cancer in the younger generation.
“The HPV vaccine is administered in young girls who have not been exposed to HPV infection, who are not yet sexually active. It will help them to develop immunity against this virus so that when they become sexually active and are exposed to the high risk of sub types of HPV, they then do not go on to develop cervical cancer.
“Perhaps the benefits of the HPV vaccines are seen many years later when these young girls have families and grow old.
“That is when we can actually measure the effectiveness of HPV vaccination because it would have given them immunity against this virus,” he said.
In the meantime, Dr Makova said, there was a need to strengthen the cervical cancer screening services to encourage all sexually active women to undergo screening at least once in three years.
The cervical cancer awareness symposium sought to bring together health care professionals involved in the management of cervical cancer, academics, cervical cancer patients and survivors, students as well as lecturers to come up with solutions to challenges being faced within the country.
HIT pro-Vice Chancellor Mr Willard Gwarimbo, said the education offered to students in today’s world should equip them with intellectual tools to tackle unforeseen challenges.
He said the institution had begun playing its part in the fight against cancer when with its first intake of diagnostic and therapy radiographers in 2018.
“Incubation hubs, laboratories and channels to link researchers to global experts wait to be fully harnessed at the Harare Institute of Technology and our doors remain open. The fight against cancer through research should also not be focussed on the tumour or the equipment and medicines alone but on the person. I would like to assure the different experts involved in the fight against cancer and other diseases that our doors are open in helping each other bring solutions to our communities,” Mr Gwarimbo said.
HIT school of Allied Health Sciences Dean, Mrs Eucaria Mushosho, said cancer could only be conquered when clinicians, academics and patients worked together.
“We are trying to bring them all together so that we bring solutions in line with cancer management. We are saying let us work together to bring answers to our current environment. We are teaching our students from books written by people in other countries, but that is because they did their research. The books may apply to us but I feel if we work closely with our clinicians and patients and do research, we should be able to produce textbooks that speak to our own prevailing environment,” she said.