Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is commemorated around the world each year in January.
This year, the WHO’s office for the Eastern Mediterranean (WHO EMRO) marked the month by launching on 11 January their strategy for eliminating the disease in the region.
According to the WHO, cervical cancer is distinguished from other cancers because it is caused an an infectious agent, and therefore is totally preventable.
Cervical cancer is the first cancer that global community has ever attempted to eliminate, an effort which will require a massive effort.
The webinar, which gathered experts, academics and media from several countries in the region, was coordinated by Dr Ibtihal Fadhil, chair at Eastern Mediterranean Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance (NCD) and former regional adviser to WHO EMRO.
The webinar aimed to highlight successful efforts and pinpoint challenges that could hinder achieving the goals of the strategy.
Kicking off the event, Dr Mohamed Afifi, regional advisor for women’s health at WHO EMRO, explained that the WHO aims to eliminate this cancer globally by 2120.
To do so, the WHO has introduced a 90-70-90 bundle of goals to be met by 2030. The bundle calls for countries to vaccinate 90 percent of girls by age 15 against the human papillomavirus (HPV), provide 70 percent screening coverage for women by ages 35 and 45 and provide 90 percent treatment for cervical pre-cancer and management for women with cancer.
The panel highlighted the following strategic actions in the WHO EMRO’s recently launched strategy:
First, strengthen primary prevention by accelerating HPV vaccine introduction and improving coverage.
Second, improve cervical screening and pre-cancer treatment.
Third, reduce the burden of suffering caused by cervical cancer by improving the availability of early diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliative care services.
Fourth, strengthen health systems to ensure integrated, efficient and equitable delivery of high-quality services across the vaccination, screening and treatment pillars and appropriate and effective monitoring and evaluation systems.
Fifth, improve communication, advocacy and social mobilisation to counter vaccine hesitancy, increase awareness of prevention and treatment and improve acceptability of diagnosis.
Challenges facing the implementation of the strategies were also highlighted during the webinar, using the case studies of Lebanon and Morocco, by Dr Faisal ElKak, Faculty of Health Sciences, AUB.
The challenges included the inadequacy of political support, lack of funds and deeply rooted misconceptions.
A notable success story was of UAE, as highlighted by Dr Butheina Bin Belaila, head of NCDs at the country’s health ministry.
Bin Belaila explained how a national screening programme for cervical cancer and vaccination has been in place for years, adding that the country has been quick to adopt the latest means of diagnosis and treatment.
The webinar affirmed the importance of the role of media in highlighting the issue and fighting misconceptions, with a special emphasis on the role of social media and influencers’ campaigns to reach out to the widest spectrum of the societies.
According to WHO data, cervical cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region.
In 2020, an estimated 89,800 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the region and more than 47,500 women died from this preventable disease.
Almost all cervical cancer cases (99 percent) are linked to infection with high-risk HPV. Although most infections with HPV resolve spontaneously and cause no symptoms, persistent infection can cause cervical cancer in women.
Dubbed the "silent killer', cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women worldwide and is also the second most deadly form of cancer among women worldwide, according to the WHO.