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Let’s put a stop to cervical cancer in Africa

Published 01/27/2017 by Global Communities

Evelyn lived in small, rural village two hours by car from the Zambian town of Kabwe. She had six children and while fighting hard to care for them with little money, her body was waging its own war without her knowing it. Evelyn had Stage 2 cervical cancer.

Evelyn first learned of her condition when she attended a screening opportunity sponsored by Project Concern International (PCI), in partnership with Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, at a Zambian Defence Force (ZDF) facility near her home.

Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon (PRRR) is a public-private partnership aimed at catalyzing the global community to reduce deaths from cervical and breast cancer in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Through mobile cancer screenings in Zambia, we are taking testing and treatment directly to women who culturally may not always seek testing, particularly for preventative care.

“You got to be really sick to look for medical help in Africa.” said Dr. Mulindi Mwanahamuntu, Head of Gynecology at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. “We first have to bridge the first barrier within the women themselves.”

Zambia has the fourth-highest rate of cervical cancer in the world. The country is particularly vulnerable to cervical cancer as it has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world and people living with HIV are more susceptible to this type of cancer. It is estimated that 93,000 women in sub-Saharan Africa develop cervical cancer annually, and, while it is extremely treatable, 57,000 die from it each year. A majority of these women are in their childbearing and productive years and in turn leave 268,000 children without mothers.

Screenings and preventative care are crucial to catching cervical cancer early, but it can be challenging for women in remote areas to reach health care services. We are working with PRRR to bring cervical-cancer prevention and treatment to where it is most needed. Through our combined efforts, we are able to reach even more women in rural Zambia through our mobile outreaches and by harnessing the power of community and women’s groups. We have screened over 15,000 women in Zambia for cervical cancer since 2011.

“When I went to the clinic, they tested me for HIV and they told me I was negative. Then I was checked for cancer,” said Evelyn. “They told me that my uterus has sores and that they need to remove it and close my womb. Then I would be better. But we don’t have money to travel. There’s nothing. We are alone, and we are struggling.”

While cervical cancer is preventable and curable at a low cost, the disproportionate burden in low-resource settings is largely due to limited access to essential prevention, screening and treatment services. 87% of cervical cancer cases occur in low-resource settings. In the west, 95% of women survive stage one cervical cancer whereas only 60% of women in sub-saharan Africa survive it.

Women can be tested for less than $2, and if pre-cancerous lesions are found, we can treat them with cryotherapy on the spot for less than $25.

With funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as part of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon support, PCI offers screening through visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) and cryotherapy for treatment of precancerous cervical lesions at and in communities around ZDF bases throughout the country.

“When I was growing up, lots of women and men –including myself – had no idea that cervical cancer was a silent killer,” said Musonda Ngolwe, a counselor for PCI in Lusaka, Zambia. Educating, screening and treating women for cervical cancer is key to avoiding preventable deaths and the broken homes that come from it.

After getting her diagnosis, PCI was assisting Evelyn to gain access to advanced care at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka. PCI staff was planning to bring her to Lusaka to begin radiotherapy, but sadly she succumbed to her illness just days before she could make the trip – two months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer has become the number-one cancer killer of women in Africa, a frustrating fact considering how treatable it is. While Evelyn’s story is heartbreaking, it motivates us to continue working with our partners to reach women in rural areas and provide them lifesaving screenings and treatments.

“Partnership is essential to our work,” said Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon CEO Celina Schocken. “By building upon existing health platforms, infrastructure, and resources, we’re able to bring cervical and breast cancer services and education to girls and women like never before.”

Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon and PCI are in the process of expanding our work to reach even more women in Zambia, and to look to expanding our programs across Africa. We plan to scale up our work and offer screening and treatment to hundreds of thousands of women. We want to see more women like Evelyn catch their illness early, receive easy and inexpensive treatment, and go on to live healthy lives with their families.

Learn more here about how you can support PCI’s various programs that are empowering people to enhance health, end hunger, and overcome hardship.