05 February 2016

“Towards A Cervical Cancer Free World”: Every Woman Every Child for World Cancer Day

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in his official statement for World Cancer Day: “Where a person lives should not determine if they develop a cancer or die from it. We must work together to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue and to reduce the burden that millions face from all cancers.”

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With more than 200 participants in attendance, Nana Kuo, Senior Manager, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, opened the event with welcoming remarks about the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this past September. The SDGs include a target for reducing premature deaths from non-communicable diseases by one-third. The Every Woman Every Child movement’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, which was launched alongside the SDGs, is focused on ending the preventable deaths of women, children, and adolescents.

In her remarks, Minister-Counselor Christine Kalamwina, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Zambia, highlighted Zambia’s engagement to raise awareness and prevent cervical cancer. In Zambia, cervical cancer is the second most common type of diagnosed cancer, ranking the country’s incident rates at second highest in the world. Zambia established a cervical cancer prevention programme in an effort to prevent cervical cancer by establishing free clinics for all women in the country.

Her remarks were followed by a video message from Cary Adams, CEO of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). He thanked the UN community for its efforts, commenting that “[cervical cancer is] one of the few cancers that can be prevented, detected early and treated well.”

Following that message, the film screening of Lady Ganga began, with introductory remarks from the documentary’s director Frederic Lumiere. The film follows the story of Michele Baldwin, a woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and given only a few months to live. She chose to travel to India to paddleboard the Ganges River to raise awareness about cervical cancer. Narrated by Michele’s daughter Audrey, who was only 12 years old at the time of her mother’s death, it documents the powerful impact education and awareness can have to eradicate cancer. Just two weeks after Audrey traveled to India to spread her mother’s ashes in the Ganges, a group of women in the Himalayas was inspired by Michele’s story to get screened for cervical cancer. One woman, Nilza, was shocked to discover she had an advanced, but very treatable, cervical pre-cancer. Michele’s story saved Nilza’s life.

Audrey reflected after the screening that her story is not unique, and since her mother’s death four years ago, more than one million women have died of cervical cancer, leaving more children and family members behind. She called for increased access to screening and preventive health services so that every woman and ever child is protected from this disease.

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The event continued with a panel discussion moderated by Sarah Goltz, Founder and Principal of Sage Innovation, on behalf of the Cervical Cancer Action Secretariat. The panel was made up of: Ann McMikel, Vice President of Global Partnerships and Planning at the American Cancer Society; Dr. Nata Menabde, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Office at the United Nations; Sinead Andersen, Senior Manager of Advocacy and Public Policy at Gavi; Dr. Carmen Barroso, Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF-WHR); and Curtis Peterson, Vice President of Global Health at MobileODT.

Ms. McMikel emphasized the need to reduce the stigma surrounding cervical cancer and rally around this preventable and treatable disease as a priority. She stated, “today, 85% of cervical cancer deaths occur in the developing world and this disease claims the lives of more women than all pregnancy-related complications combined.” This is one of many reasons why we must create a compelling case for governments so they invest in HPV vaccination and cost-effective screening.

Dr. Menabde announced the new seven agency UN Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control—these agencies include: WHO, UNFPA, IAEA, IARC, UNAIDS, UN Women and UNICEF. The goal of this initiative is to support countries in implementing new recommendations to improve cervical cancer prevention and control programmes.

Gavi has managed to bring the cost of HPV vaccines for the poorest countries down to a fraction of the cost, said Ms. Andersen. This has allowed Gavi and its partners to reach one million girls over the past few years, but there is still a long way to go with only 28 of 63 eligible countries having taken advantage of available commodities.

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Dr. Barroso highlighted the importance of mainstreaming cervical cancer prevention into women’s health services. She also emphasized the critical role NGOs play in providing services, raising awareness, advocating and collaborating with local governments.

The panel closed with an exchange about what the global community should do differently. Mr. Peterson emphasized the importance of true collaborative partnerships “where it is not the supplier-customer partnership but it is in fact a deep partnership critical for engaging and leveraging the innovation and the strength that industry and private sector can bring to healthcare, to health systems.”

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The event concluded with a final call to action by advocate Tsipi Taube, UNFPA Deputy Executive Director Laura Londén, and Minister-Counselor of the Permanent Mission of the U.S. to the UN Stephanie Amadeo.

“Cervical cancer should not, and does not have to, be a death sentence,” said Ms. Amadeo.

While simple, effective, and inexpensive screening tools to diagnose cervical cancer do exist—as well as affordable prevention and treatment options—these tools are still out of reach for many women in developing countries. We must use the knowledge and tools we have to change that and eliminate cervical cancer.

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