Millions of young Nigerian girls could be risking contracting the deadly cervical cancer as many of them refuse to take the potentially life-saving Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, BusinessDay has learnt.
HPV infection has been identified as a high-risk factor implicated in 95 percent of cervical cancer cases, by infecting cells in the cervix, changing, and causing them to replicate and multiply in an uncontrolled manner.
The Nigerian government integrated the HPV vaccine into national routine immunisation in October, but findings show that most parents in local communities are preventing their daughters from taking the vaccine.
HPV vaccine, according to experts, offers protection for young girls against the second most common cancer in Nigeria, which has killed thousands of women.
With the immunisation programme, the government is targeting over seven million girls aged nine to 14, the largest number in a single round of HPV vaccination in the African region.
Despite efforts by healthcare workers deployed across states, reluctance remains a significant hurdle. False and misinformation have created doubts and safety concerns around the vaccine. Low awareness among Nigeria’s rural poor is also a major challenge.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer 2023 factsheet estimates that 60.9 million Nigerian women aged 15 to 19 are at risk of developing cervical cancer in the absence of cost-effective strategies to scale up prevention and early detection, such as vaccination.
According to the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, cervical cancer kills 22 women in Nigeria every day out of 33 reported cases. The country contributes an estimated 12,075 new cases of global cervical cancer, with 8,000 deaths annually.
Sharing her concerns with BusinessDay, Ucheoma Udensi, a petty trader in the Bwari area of Abuja, said she is not sure about the safety of the vaccine and will not let her daughters take it. “We don’t know what the vaccine is all about or the origin. They said it was brought into Nigeria, but nobody knows the side effects of this vaccine. So we can’t invite more problems.”
At the Bakin Ado Primary School in Nasarawa State, nine-year-old Nasiba Ahmed (not real name) refused to take the vaccine when public health officials visited her school to administer it. “My mother asked me not to take any vaccine,” she said without providing any reasons.
Recently, Adefesoye Akinpelu, director of disease control and immunisation at the Ondo State Primary Healthcare Development Agency, said that ahead of rollout in the state, there were already myths and misconceptions circulating around the vaccine.
“There is a rumour going on in the state that the federal government and some presidents in the world want to use the vaccine to cause a drastic reduction in the population of the world and that whoever takes the vaccine is going to die,” he told journalists.
A particular school in the local community in the state reported that up to 90 percent of parents during the recent Parents Teachers Association refused to authorise that the vaccine be administered to their daughters.
BusinessDay gathered that many parents, especially those living in rural areas and the most vulnerable ones, lack awareness of the vaccine and its benefits, while others worry about possible side effects and safety concerns.
76% see vaccine as a threat to health – Report
A recent HPV vaccine awareness and willingness poll conducted by Sydani Institute for Research and Innovation of Sydani Group showed that 76 percent of respondents believe that HPV is a threat to girls’ health. A total of 4,074 caregivers were asked across eight states in the country including Abia, Adamawa, Bayelsa, Enugu, FCT, Jugawa, Adamawa, and Taraba.
According to the survey, 13 percent of respondents lack awareness, 15 percent are worried about the side effects, 15 percent cited safety concerns and 12 percent say they don’t trust the vaccine.
A key concern cited by parents is about the safety of the vaccine as misinformation and rumours regarding potential side effects have fuelled doubts.
Oyewale Tomori, a renowned virologist and former vice chancellor of Redeemer’s University, saidnNigeria needs to actively counter false information and misconceptions about the HPV vaccine.
He said the government has not done enough to raise awareness about the vaccine, which has created gaps for misinformation and false information to spread.
He said the introduction of information on HPV vaccination should have started at least six or seven months ago.
Tomori expressed worry that the government’s current efforts are coming too little and late.
Health experts warned that the consequences of not taking the HPV vaccine extend beyond individual health. Potential surge in cervical cancer cases could strain an already burdened local healthcare system, leading to increased treatment costs and a higher demand for limited healthcare resources, they said.
A 2023 journal by the American Society of Clinical Oncology shows that an alarming 90 percent of the global cervical cancer incidence and mortality occur in low- and middle-income countries such as Nigeria, with women of low socioeconomic status bearing the greatest burden.
Adaobi Onyechi, a public health expert, emphasised the significance of addressing these concerns. “The HPV vaccine is the most critical tool in preventing cancer, and we need to work collectively to overcome these challenges. Educating parents, dispelling myths, and ensuring equitable access to the vaccine are essential steps.”
Emily Kobayashi, head of the HPV program at GAVI, said in an interview with BusinessDay that there are hard-to-reach areas in Nigeria that could impede vaccine uptake.
She highlighted myths and misconceptions that make people hesitant and suggested that the Nigerian government must proactively act to overcome these obstacles.
She said there have been no serious reported adverse effects associated with the vaccine following rollouts in other countries.
Meanwhile, in response to the low awareness and hesitancy throughout the nation, the wives of Nigeria governors have pledged to work with primary health workers and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare on a comprehensive awareness campaign to address the resistance being encountered at the grassroots level.