The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cervical Cancer in Botswana

Many women in Botswana are dying of cervical cancer.  Cervical cancer is caused by HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus.  Although there is widespread knowledge about HIV in Botswana, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are not well-known.  More women die from cervical cancer in Botswana than from any other kind of cancer.  The tragic part about the situation is that cervical cancer is preventable.  Women must simply go their local clinic or hospital for yearly pap smears.  If abnormal cells are found on the cervix, a series of measures can be taken so that the abnormal cells do not turn into cancer.

HPV is not only a problem in Botswana.  According to the Center for Disease Control, at least 50% of sexually active Americans will contract HPV during their lifetime.  There are more than 40 different strands of HPV.  Some of them cause genital warts, others cervical changes.  There is no HPV test for men, which is one of the reasons why it is so easily spread.  You could have been infected with HPV years ago and not know it.  HPV rarely has any symptoms (other than warts) before it causes cervical cancer.

Luckily, foreign donors and the Botswana Ministry of Health are recognizing this as a problem that can be solved simply.  Get more women to do pap smears.  Get the results in a timely fashion.  Follow up with the women who have abnormal cells on their cervix.  Piece of cake, right?  Unfortunately, no.  Some women (especially younger, sexually active women) are afraid to do pap smears because they believe they are painful.  Results are not received in a timely manner.  Occasionally they are lost altogether.  And tracking women down in a large village with no transport, and where many people don't have cell phones...well, you get the picture.

Positive steps are being taken to remedy this serious health issue in Botswana.  In the past, HIV has been the message of the day.  But the Ministry of Health is realizing that it needs to integrate other messages about sexual reproductive health into HIV awareness.  Raising awareness about cervical cancer is a large part of that.

Former President George W. Bush came to Botswana a few months ago.  He announced a new multi-million dollar initiative to  step up cervical cancer screenings.  For more information, check this out.

What makes me most excited is the "See and Treat" program that the Ministry of Health is rolling out next year.  To ameliorate the issue of lack of timely results, the Ministry is trying a new tactic.  Doctors and trained professionals in a handful of hospitals across the country will be screening women for cervical cancer using vinegar.  When vinegar reacts with the cells on the cervix, one can identify the cervical changes and treat on the spot.  This eliminates the difficulty in finding women for follow-ups.  Here is a great NPR article about this new initiative.

When so much of our work is centered around behavior change and HIV, it is refreshing to hear about something exciting and different.  The "See and Treat" program could really make a difference in Botswana.  I hope other countries are using the same model.

As PCVs, we can refer women to places where they do the "See and Treat."  We can spread awareness about cervical cancer in a more comprehensive way.  Working to increase the number of women screened for cervical cancer in Botswana is something achievable that can make us feel fulfilled.  It is a great time to be working in international public health.

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