International HPV Awareness Day is a timely reminder to recognise young people as Commonwealth change agents, whose efforts will undoubtedly be a force for good on our road to eliminating HPV and making cervical cancer a thing of the past
Blog by Dr Ruth Kattumuri, Senior Director - Economic, Youth and Sustainable Development, Commonwealth Secretariat
Achieving the highest attainable standard of health is an essential human right. Regardless of age, gender, geography, socio-economic or ethnic background, meeting SDG3 to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all’ is a fundamental asset.
Young people around the world are rightfully cognisant of this human right. Increasingly, young people are becoming empowered to take care of and advocate for their health. Youth represent 60 per cent of the Commonwealth population, and through tools such as social media and collective social movements, they have driven citizenship engagement on pressing issues that will undoubtedly impact our goal of achieving equitable health and well-being. On matters of global health, young people are also actively engaged within their communities to drive change on a multitude of issues including addressing the determinants of noncommunicable diseases and advocating for improved access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
One issue that has benefited from increased youth advocacy is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Recognising the lack of understanding surrounding HPV, young people have been working hard to increase awareness amongst their peers and their communities. They are also advocating for equitable global access to screening and prevention of the virus in the youth population. There is strong evidence that the mobilisation of young people on the causes and consequences of HPV is reverberating across the Commonwealth. Youth are playing a critical role in securing global commitments to eliminate the virus and prevent cervical cancer.
What is HPV and how is it contracted?
HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection (STI) in the world and affects people of all genders and sexual orientations. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the global population will have HPV at some point in their life, with the highest prevalence observed in adolescents and young adults. Whilst most of us may never experience symptoms of HPV, the virus can cause cancer and claims approximately half a million lives globally every year.
Over 200 different types of HPV are known and categorised as either low- or high-risk. Low-risk types are responsible for genital warts and mild cervical changes, while high-risk types including types 16 and 18 are associated with the development of cervical and other HPV-related cancers. In fact, HPV types 16 and 18 account for over 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases.
Although most HPV infections clear up on their own, there is a risk that a HPV infection may progress to invasive cervical cancer or other cancers.
The first preventative HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was approved in 2006 and was subsequently introduced in many middle- and high-income countries during the mid-to-late 2000s. Through the support of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), access to HPV vaccines was enabled for low-income countries. As of 2021, over 100 countries have access to HPV vaccines and countless youth advocates and changemakers have been at the forefront of achieving this progress. Despite this progress, these countries cover only 30 per cent of the global target population, which reflects global disparities in cervical cancer incidence and mortality. This indicates that much more needs to be done to enhance access to vaccines for HPV so that we can maintain momentum on achieving the related UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030.
Youth taking action
Should a source of inspiration be required in eliminating HPV, we do not need to look any further than our youth population in the Commonwealth.
In 2020, a group of young leaders organised themselves from across the Commonwealth, to create the Alliance for Active Action Against HPV (A4HPV). Emboldened by lived and familial experiences of cancer, the young founders of A4HPV have strived to empower and involve young people in their global efforts for HPV and cervical cancer elimination. Originally focused on increasing vaccination and screening efforts in Singapore, A4HPV has developed into the Commonwealth Youth Taskforce for Cervical Cancer & HPV and works in tandem with the Secretariat’s Commonwealth International Taskforce for the Elimination of Cervical Cancer, which has been working actively to incorporate youth voices in its advocacy and research efforts. As a youth-led initiative, A4HPV continues to welcome health leaders and young people looking to make a difference in the global health movement and through a satellite model, it encourages members to consider developing chapters in their own countries.
Focusing on four key issues, A4HPV works to:
- increase awareness of HPV and its related cancers;
- advocate for early detection and prevention approaches to HPV and cervical cancer;
- ensure young people and their innovative strategies are involved in the policy-making and solutions; and
- endorse a gender-neutral stance to HPV vaccination and awareness.
Recognising the importance of collaboration in eliminating HPV and cervical cancer, the Taskforce has developed partnerships with allies from multiple sectors, government and NGOs, and will work towards adopting this multi-stakeholder model in its various chapters.
At the Commonwealth Secretariat, we are strongly committed to supporting and encouraging the work and efforts of A4HPV and the Commonwealth Youth Taskforce, as they continue to raise awareness of these critical issues.
Looking forward – our hope for a cervical cancer-free future
Today is a significant day in the global health calendar, as it marks the fifth International HPV Awareness Day. On this day, it is my hope that we start and continue to further our conversations about HPV, with our families, friends and colleagues, so that we can work to reduce the stigma surrounding HPV and ensure that more people are equipped with the knowledge required to help protect themselves against this virus.
We recognise the advances that have been achieved so far - from innovations developed by tireless scientists who have provided us with the tools to make HPV elimination a reality, to political commitments made by our leaders, who at the 2021 Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting committed to ensuring all girls have access to the HPV vaccine by age 13.
But today, I want to recognise and celebrate the important work of the Commonwealth’s young health advocates, who continue to hold our decision-makers accountable and take action towards a better and healthier future for all of us in the Commonwealth.
Should we aspire for a future that is free from HPV, we must listen to the voices and insights of the next generation, whose role in advancing elimination efforts cannot be overstated. As we anticipate the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, International HPV Awareness Day is a timely reminder to recognise young people as Commonwealth change agents, whose efforts will undoubtedly be a force for good on our road to eliminating HPV and making cervical cancer a thing of the past.
If you'd like to learn more about the team at A4HPV, or to join their efforts, please visit their website here.
- Angela Kolongo Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat
- E-mail | +44 7587 881503