Medical experts have devoted January to cervical health awareness campaigns with an emphasis on the use the Pap Smears to detect abnormal, pre-cancerous cells and the presence of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) coupled with regular vaccination to prevent cancer.
These experts also identified ignorance, misconceptions and women’s poor response to Pap Smear – the test is done to know if they are at risk of cervical cancer.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that annually, about 14,089 new cases of cervical cancer is diagnosed in Nigeria, despite the fact that this is a disease that can be prevented by regular screening.
“Cervical cancer is the second commonest cancer in women after breast cancer, but it kills more than breast cancer,” said Jide Akeredolu, a medical practitioner and district governor, Rotary International District of 9110. “We know that from the World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics it kills 26 women in Nigeria every day and that is a troubling statistic, meaning that a woman dies of cervical cancer in Nigeria every 5 minutes.”
Akeredolu explained that cervical cancer is a unique form of cancer in the sense that a proper vaccination with the right vaccines against the virus will prevent girls from having cancer in their lifetime, unlike other cancers that do not have vaccines.
Meanwhile, the HPV infection is a primary cause of cervical cancer along with types of cancer that affect both women and men. Approximately 8 out of 10 people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime.
One of the easiest ways to prevent HPV from developing into cancer is through vaccination. The HPV vaccine has been shown to be 90 percent effective in preventing cancers caused by HPV.
Cervical cancer originates from uterine cervix and the neck of the womb, which is located at the lower end of the uterus extending into the upper part of the vagina.
In later stages, symptoms include heavy vaginal bleeding or discharge (more than usual), bleeding after sex, between periods or after a pelvic exam, pain during sex or urination.
In Nigeria, the absence of well-coordinated national screening programmes has significantly contributed to the late presentation of most cervical cancer.
Runcie Chidebe, executive director, Project PINK BLUE, a health and psychological trust centre in Abuja said that some women are at higher risk because of factors such as having the HPV, not getting screened, smoking, multiple sex partners and age.
“The high mortality of the disease in Nigeria is due to late diagnosis, lack of awareness, low utilisation of screening services, lack of knowledge and suggestive symptoms.
“There is no systematic screenings program in Nigeria. What we have is sporadic screenings, where non-governmental organisations (NGOs) organise here and there.
“There is a need for the Federal Government to mandate that all Public Health Centre (PHC) through the State Levels to ensure that once a woman comes into any PHC, she must go for cervical cancer screening like Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid,” Chidebe said.
Ifeoma Okoye a radiologist at University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) and founder of Breast Without Spot said that late presentation of cervical and other cancers will continue to increase in Nigeria, unless the country does something more proactive than it has been doing in the past.
According to her, the major drivers of the high morbidity are fear, reluctance to accept a fee for screening and the unaffordable medical bills associated with late presentation.
“We urge the public to be cancer conscious, know the causes and risk factors so that appropriate precautions can be taken to modify or avoid them. In addition to preventing and reducing the risk of cancer, individuals should refrain from smoking and drinking alcohol, be physically active, and have a balanced diet,” Okoye said.
She stated that fear fuels the wrong perception about cancer and can only be buried when the country can change the narrative through improving early detection, increasing opportunities for a free screening, and assisting indigent patients to cope with their medical bills. These interventions, according to her will improve survival statistics.
Habeebu Muhammad, head of the Department of Oncology at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) said that most women in Nigeria lack the knowledge of how and why they need to do Pap smear test. There is poor response to Pap smear in the country,” “There is a whole lot of fear factor in our country because most people do not allow screening due to their religious beliefs.
“It is better to come for a check-up because early detection increases the chances of survival and there is so much that can be done to prevent or cure it,” Muhammad advised.