Risk of cancer to HIV+ women

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There is relief on the horizon for HIV+ women who will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Cancer treatment costs an arm and limb and is beyond the reach of many people in Zimbabwe. Although screening is offered free of charge at some health centres at selected times, this is not widely available. The world after being diagnosed with cancer is a different scenario, as testing does not mean getting free treatment.

Zimbabwe is among eight countries selected to receive the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This programme is dubbed: The Partnership to End AIDS and Cervical Cancer among HIV-positive women in Africa.

Pending congressional approval, the United States will invest over US$30 million through the renewed partnership. Women who are HIV-positive are 4-5 times more likely to develop invasive cervical cancer. Generally women in Zimbabwe report in late stages of cancer due to the limited access to cancer screening and treatment.

Martha Tholanah, a woman living with HIV said she welcomed the initiative to help saves lives.

“As the International Community of Women with HIV Zimbabwe, (ICW-Zimbabwe), we welcome the Partnership to End AIDS and Cervical Cancer among HIV-positive women in Africa. Our hope is that the screening, prevention and treatment is more widespread and reaches all women and girls their diversities, including women and girls in rural communities, mining communities, farming communities, peri-urban and those in informal settlements within and surrounding urban areas,” said Tholanah.

“For me, individually, this gesture represents immense hope for me, my daughters and my grandchildren.

I know this is true for many women. We just need to make sure we all work together – health service providers, civil society and community based organisations, as well as the media – to ensure the information is spread far and wide so that no woman or girl will die of cervical cancer,” she concluded.

Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV.

HPV is contacted by having sexual contact with someone who has a cancer-causing HPV virus.

Primary prevention consists of vaccination and abstinence at least before the age of 20 and having one sexual partner. Condom use is not as effective in preventing the HPV virus. The HPV virus lives in the skin cells covering the pubic area as well as the interior cells lining the vagina, cervix, urethra anus in both sexes.

Prevention remains the cornerstone as change of sexual behaviour and abstinence is a broad issue involving education, family background and culture.

The First Lady, Auxilia Mnangagwa has shouldered the cancer burden and has advocated screening for all women. now getting national. However, the screening still has to reach the four corners, from Zambezi to Limpopo and from Forbes border post to Plumtree.

Zimbabwe last week launched the National Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme.

The programme is set to benefit over 800 000 girls aged between 10 and 14. It will provide them with the highest standards of protection from this virus which causes cervical cancer.

The best treatment for cancer is prevention. Speaking at the launch the First Lady said she wished the programme reaches out to save all targetted girls in and out of school.

“Health is intractably linked to development and healthy women and mothers are a key ingredient to a wealthy nation. As a mother, it is therefore my wish that all eligible girls be reached with this HPV vaccination irrespective of culture, religion, social status and geographical location… It is imperative that all parents and guardians take this exercise seriously and get all the targeted girls in and out of school vaccinated. Do not block them.

Let us do what is best.”

For women living with HIV, cancer was taking a toll as treatment was not affordable, some preferred not to get screened arguing what was the use, if treatment was not affordable. This is set to change as screening would be accompanied with treatment for those requiring it.

The partnership will ensure efforts are more effective and at a lower cost by refocusing on reaching HIV-positive women in eight target countries: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

“With prevention in the vaccine for young girls, and treatment for HIV+ women, the blanket has to still cover those not yet under this umbrella.