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Opinionista

Political parties should target new female voters with pledges to tackle cervical cancer

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Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland.

Last week I was privileged to spend a few hours at a very special clinic in Site B, Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

In several unassuming refurbished shipping containers in Khayelitsha, a team of dedicated nurses and doctors have been screening and treating hundreds of women at risk of developing cervical cancer.

They have also been at the forefront of research into new hi-tech and yet surprisingly simple treatments that can be a game-changer when it comes to fighting cervical cancer.

These new initiatives cannot come quickly enough.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among South African women, but it is also the cancer women die of most.

Shockingly, the five-year survival rate in sub-Saharan Africa is only about 30%, which means that 70% of women contracting cervical cancer will die within five years of diagnosis.

In South Africa, this figure is somewhere between 50% and 60%, compared with only 25% in Australia and 20% in the UK. 

This not only means agonising deaths for the women affected, but also has wider social impacts.

A study found that, globally, more than a million orphans are created each year from the deaths of women with cancer – of which half is from cervical or breast cancers.

Shockingly, only 25% of these orphans under the age of 10 will be alive five years later, and those who do survive, usually don’t get much educational, social and emotional support.

Frustratingly, cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that are almost 100% preventable or treatable with early intervention. In fact, many argue that in a generation, we could eradicate cervical cancer.

For that, we first need widespread vaccinations.

About 99% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted.

Most men carry HPV and will show absolutely no symptoms.

A healthy immune system can usually fight off the virus, but in about 10% of cases, the virus penetrates the cervix, cells mutate and cause a very dangerous form of cancer.

Yet, there is a simple vaccine that can prevent this.

In Norway, for example, after immunising all girls through a national vaccination programme, researchers have recently reported finding no cases of cervical cancer caused by HPV in these girls when they turned 25. 

Nigeria recently announced it would include HPV vaccines in its regular vaccination programme targeting more than seven million girls. Last week it was reported that India has now manufactured its own HPV vaccine. 

In South Africa, the state started to roll out a vaccination programme, but it came to a halt during Covid and is still not fully back on track. This needs to change urgently. 

In addition, we have to step up our screening programmes. 

Cervical cancers can be treated successfully if discovered in time. 

Even though pap smears are available to all women in South Africa, the system often breaks down. The samples are frequently unusable, it takes up to six weeks to get results and women often don’t get their results at all.

This is why the work of UCT’s Prof Lynette Denny, one of the world’s leading experts on cervical cancer, and her team in Khayelitsha, is so important.

They have been trialling the HPV DNA testing system. A simple swab is taken vaginally and then analysed by a machine for the presence of the specific strain/s of HPV (only a few strains cause almost all cervical cancers). 

The results are available in an hour and, assuming that the women are still pre-cancerous, they can then be treated immediately with thermal ablation – a painless treatment which gets rid of abnormal cells.

This test-and-treat method means women can go home within a few hours – no need for lengthy waiting times or return trips to the clinic.

This system can make a huge difference in the cost and efficacy of eradicating cervical cancer and should be rolled out more widely by the government to save thousands of women from having to deal with an ordeal which might otherwise lead to their deaths.

Prof Langanani Mbodi from Wits University and Charlotte Maxeke Hospital points out that all the necessary treatments are available in the public sector to women diagnosed with cervical cancer. 

However, they will often have to wait months for surgery and then to get chemotherapy or radiation. Since time is of the essence, it all contributes to the high mortality rate. 

We are failing the thousands of women who die unnecessarily every year from cervical cancer in South Africa.

Since there are three million more female registered voters this year, a commitment to eradicate cervical cancer might be a good place for political parties to start – if they are serious about getting those three million votes. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Francois Smith says:

    Comrade Verwoerd always manages to find the one issue that is extremely important to the few it effects. Political parties, in fact, should concentrate not on the symptom of a bad government, but to improve government to the extent that these services which are so important, should be taken care of. Comrade Verwoerd, if you go public and say that the ANC is the problem and not the solution and that people should vote against it and all its possible coalition partners like the EFF, MK and the PA.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      The observations of the two women below … suggests your testosterone is out of control ? Get a handle on it .. quickly .. and stop trying to undermine women with cheap politicking !

  • Jane Hohls says:

    Now here is a topic I can really get behind. I will continue to watch where this leads. Thank you.

  • Jill Gribble says:

    Thank you for your clear and informative article, Melanie Verwoerd.

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