Stakeholders from across the Commonwealth shared inspiring and compelling messages calling for increased screening, vaccination, and heightened awareness to reduce the burden of cervical cancer.
They did so during a webinar organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat in January, which is commemorated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
The event, which was organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Health Advisor, Dr Janneth Mghamba, was open to the public. Over 200 participants were online during the event.
Rising burden of cervical cancer
Speakers including First Ladies, High Commissioners, members of the Commonwealth International Cervical Cancer Task Force, partner organisations, public health experts and young people are all working with the Secretariat to address the rising burden of cervical cancer across Commonwealth member countries.
The webinar was ably moderated by Dr Miriam Mutebi, Chair of the Commonwealth International Cervical Cancer Task Force. She noted that there is a greater need for advocacy, collective action, and increased resources to advance the cervical cancer elimination agenda.
Many of the participants noted that cervical cancer is one of the diseases that can be prevented and eliminated. A 2022 report also found that Commonwealth members account for 40 per cent of global cervical cancer incidence and 43 per cent of cervical cancer deaths. The incidence and mortality rates of cervical cancer in the Commonwealth are therefore rising and affecting member countries disproportionately.
Increasing health inequity
It was noted that these are not mere statistics, but they mean serious disruption to families, communities, and countries. It is also noted that cervical cancer represents an economic drain, even more acute when they happen in low and middle-income countries. Removing barriers to inequity and ensuring availability of preventive health services, screening, vaccination, and early treatment would reduce the burden on the society in many developing countries.
The Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC, said:
“Barriers to access are complex, multifaceted and face us at every level of society. Too many countries do not yet have national cervical cancer prevention and screening policies and programmes, which serve as vital tools in our elimination efforts.”
Following the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s opening remarks, HE Monica Geingos, the First Lady of the Republic of Namibia, highlighted the fact that cervical cancer mortality rates are rising in regions where there are higher levels of poverty. In her address, she asserted “where you live should not determine if you live” but she equally mentioned that Cancer is also not a respecter of race, status, gender, or age, as it can affect anyone anywhere.
First Lady of Rwanda, HE Jeannette Kagame bemoaned the fact that 70% of cancer deaths occur in the developing world adding that it is our collective responsibility to reduce this number but also stressed on the fact that strong political leadership has been a driving force to the successful implementation of some cervical cancer elimination measures in Rwanda.
HE Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow, the First Lady of The Gambia, HE Mrs Mariam Mwinyi, the First Lady of Zanzibar, and HE Rossana Maria Briceño, spouse of the Prime Minister of Belize also provided powerful and compelling messages of support. They also highlighted the work they were doing in their own countries to support the mission to have early detection, vaccination, and early treatment of cervical cancer.
The online event included discussions on dispelling the myths and misconceptions that are often barriers to cancer prevention and explored key challenges hindering progress in conquering cervical cancer in the Commonwealth.
Anita Graham, Commonwealth Youth Health Network (CYHN), also shared the work that the CYHN group is doing to support cervical cancer elimination. She noted that there were public awareness campaigns and advocacy efforts as well as other initiatives aimed at increasing access to vaccines undertaken by young people in the Commonwealth.
The efforts of the youth network, support the work of the Commonwealth International Cervical Cancer Task Force, who work closely with the Secretariat's Health team to advance a holistic approach towards cervical cancer elimination.
Conquering Cervical Cancer in the Commonwealth: Addressing Myths and Misconceptions
Watch the webinar recording
Ijeoma Onyeator Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat