Saving female pupils from cancer

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Gwen Ramokgopa and first lady Thobeka Zuma launched the HPV vaccine campaign at Gonyane Primary in Mangaung in the Free State in 2014. PICTURE: GCIS

A TOTAL of 518 schools and 30000 pupils from primary and special schools will be visited by workers from the city of Joburg’s health department as part of a campaign to provide the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine to female pupils.

The vaccine is administered in a schedule of two doses at six month intervals, targeting all young girls in Grade 4 who are nine years and older. The first dose (HPV1) was administered yesterday, it will continue until March 16. The second dose (HPV2) will resume on August 7 and will continue until September 14.

The campaign, which started in 2014 and is conducted annually, is a joint intervention by the city together with the Gauteng department of health and the department of basic education. Parents and care givers will receive the consent forms from schools which should be signed and returned to the schools, the city says no pupil will be vaccinated without parental consent.

The campaign will take place under the theme of Protecting South African Girls against Cancer of the Cervix. Member of mayoral committee for health and social development Dr Mpho Phalatse said the purpose of this intervention is to prevent cervical cancer and also protect pupils against worm infestations.

“Cervical cancer is the only type of cancer which is 100% preventable,” Phalatse said. Although cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, globally about 500000 women suffer from the disease every year and more than 270000 die. Some 80% of these deaths occur in developing countries, where cervical cancer is now the leading cause of cancer-related death among women.

She said primary prevention through vaccination against the virus stops the disease before it can start. However, vaccination takes decades to impact. The World Health Organisation estimates the number of women with cervical cancer will double by 2020, even with vaccination. 80% of sexually active people will get an HPV infection during their life.

About 9000 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in southern Africa per year, with an estimated age-standardised incidence rate of 31.5 per 100000 women. Data from local studies suggests important regional differences and an increase in the prevalence of cytological abnormalities when compared with historical data.

The high prevalence of HIV infection, late initiation of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, unscreened population and the high incidence of cervical cancer all suggest that HPV infections and precursors to cervical cancer are both unusually common among southern African women and may be on the increase.