13 March 2014
South Africa took a major step towards protecting women against cervical cancer on Wednesday when Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi launched the government’s HPV vaccine campaign, targeting girls aged between nine and 12 years old, at Gonyane Primary School in Bloemfontein.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major cause of cervical cancer, which is responsible for the deaths of over 3 000 women in South Africa every year.
The vaccination campaign will run during March and April. After six months, the same girls will receive the second dose of the vaccine. The aim is to vaccinate an estimated 500 000 girls in 17 000 schools, the department said.
Motsoaledi said that although the vaccine was expensive – each dose costs between R700 and R1 000 in the private sector – he was determined to see that children were vaccinated.
“Today, South Africa [becomes] one of the few countries on the continent to provide this vaccine to all Grade 4 learners. The one country which provides this vaccine is Zambia, and it only gives 25 000 vaccines. It’s a serious disease affecting women around the world.”
The effect of vaccinations
Nolubabalo Palesa Qhautse, one of Gonyane Primary’s Grade 4s, received her first dose of the HPV vaccine from the minister himself.
She put on a brave face when it was her turn to get vaccinated, saying: “My mother didn’t tell me in detail what cervical cancer is, but she promised me that the vaccine is going to protect me.”
Qhautse’s mother, Dimakatso, who accompanied her to school on Wednesday, told SANews she was relieved that her daughter would be protected from cervical cancer, which she said had almost killed her mother.
“My mother had cervical cancer and her womb had to be removed. Fortunately, she survived. When I heard about the campaign launch, I didn’t hesitate and signed the consent form from the school immediately,” Qhautse said.
Motsoaledi noted that around 6 000 South African women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. About 80% are African women. Between 3 000 and 3 500 die annually, even after treatment.
“Half of them are aged between 35 and 55,” he said, urging all women to get screened for cervical cancer.
He said that although girls from the higher grades had missed out on the vaccination, the department would make sure that every learner from Grade R was vaccinated by the time they reached Grade 4.
About 3 000 health workers have been trained to administer the vaccine, according to the Health Department. The Treasury has allocated R400-million for the campaign.
‘Also beneficial for boys’
Professor Helen Rees, the executive director at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, said the vaccination of girls would also reduce infections in boys.
HPV infections are typically sexually transmitted. According to Wikipedia, while they cause no physical symptoms in many people, in others they can cause genital warts and various cancers.
“If we can get the coverage in young girls up high enough, there’s a benefit for young boys because as you decrease the infection [in girls], there will be less infection in boys,” said Rees.
First Lady Thobeka Madiba-Zuma who attended the launch, said that many women died painful deaths due to breast and cervical cancers. “South Africa today is witnessing a huge milestone, a step towards the right direction, which is prevention is better than cure.”