At the Global Cervical Cancer Forum Monday, May 27, before the official start of Women Deliver 2013, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my family.
My aunt was diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was a student at university. At the time, she was pregnant with her second child. A little over a year after finding out she had cancer, she died.
She was only 31.
She left behind a newborn baby and an infant son—along with a devastated family who could not imagine how to move on from the death of their wife, daughter and sister. My cousins had to grow up without a mother. And I could not understand how my “cool aunt”—the one who wore bell bottoms and introduced my “traditional” Midwestern family to the “radical” concepts of meditation and vegetarianism—could suddenly be gone.
We did not know back then that cervical cancer was caused by a sexually transmitted virus, HPV. We’ve come a long way since then. Today there is a vaccine can prevent HPV, prevent cervical cancer, and prevent women from dying.
Despite the proven technological advances and 70 percent efficacy, too many women and girls are not getting the vaccine. Some do not have access to it because they live in places where the vaccine is unavailable or too expensive. Some are thwarted by soundless fears that giving the vaccine to girls will increase promiscuity—despite research proving otherwise. For most women and girls, the story ends there: the virus is harmless. But some of the unlucky ones will later develop cervical cancer. And sadly, some of them, like my aunt, will die. The HPV virus is very common—and without intervention—the odds are high that women will become infected.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I’m extremely proud to be working for MSH, an organization which, together with our partner, USAID, supports Ministries of Health in Uganda and Ethiopia in offering integrated basic screening and treatment services for cervical cancer. I’m hopeful we can expand to more countries as donor funding increases. I’m thrilled that the costs of HPV vaccines have gone down—so that future generations of girls and women around the world may never even need treatment. And I’m convinced that it will take all of us working together and spreading the word in our communities to combat myths about cervical cancer and the vaccine.
It is time to stop women from dying.
Because kids should never lose a Mom — or families a beloved aunt — from a disease we can prevent.
Shannon England is vice president of strategic development and communications at MSH.