Kenya is among the three leading countries in Africa with the highest number of cervical cancer deaths, the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) Board Chair Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Lweala has said.
She said that slightly over 311, 000 women die from cervical cancer globally each year with 90 percent of those being in middle-income countries.
“Twenty-five percent of these cases are in Africa which is around 72,000 deaths and the three countries with the highest number of deaths are in Africa namely Zimbabwe, Malawi and Kenya,” she said.
Speaking Wednesday in Nairobi during a high level dialogue on the future of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine programme in Kenya, Dr. Ngozi said what the numbers mean is there is a need to focus a lot and give attention to the vaccine and added that GAVI is passionate about having the HPV vaccine.
“As a colon cancer survivor myself, any type of cancer that has a vaccine and can be prevented, I propose we should go for it. I went through three years of treatment and it is by God’s grace that I am sitting here and so I am a strong advocate for prevention,” Dr Ngozi said.
Dr. Ngozi said that the vaccine will not only save young girls but said while undergoing vaccination brought in by their grandmothers and even mothers, the occasion can be used as a platform to educate them on nutrition, health status, reproductive education.
She explained that GAVI works towards reduction of costs for vaccines for the countries and has a unique instrument called the advance market commitment which enables it to negotiate with vaccine manufactures to lower the cost of vaccines
“For HPV for instance in a case where it would cost 100 dollars in the US, we can bring it down to about 4.50 dollars and this is what makes it affordable for our countries,” she said adding if they did not have these kind of mechanism, it would be much harder for Africa to afford it.
The demand for the vaccines is high Dr. Ngozi said, but added despite the excitement about launching the vaccine, there is need to acknowledge challenges such as critics who may not understand what the vaccine does.
“It is not about reproductive issues with girls it is about saving lives, being able to communicate that and say this vaccine has to do with preventing a death in future thus we must work together in all our countries as community advocates to send the message,” she added.
She however noted that the biggest challenge of the vaccine would be the supply and demand.
“The continental demand of the vaccine could reach 80 million doses and we only have about 35 million available meaning there is a deficit of about 45 million,” she said.
Dr. Ngozi thus encouraged and called on vaccine manufactures to step up production to avoid a situation where people are excited to get it but there is a constant shortage.
GAVI, the alliance, she said is ready and willing to move on with the vaccine and to support Kenya and all other African countries to deliver on it.
Health Cabinet Secretary, Sicily Kariuki said the country has improved immunization coverage from 52 percent to 82 percent national average as it were two years ago in terms of vaccine coverage within the routine of vaccinations just shortly on the heels of the launch of malaria vaccine two months ago.
“These means that we have found immunization and vaccinating our children to be a worthwhile investment and indeed see it is with our primary health care approach to delivering UHC,” she said
During the run up to introduce the HPV vaccine, the CS noted that although it was not easy to bring all stakeholders together because of various interest groups, they did not hesitate but take everyone’s input even at the 11th hour before the launch
“What brings us here is part of the engagement to say yes on the 18th of last month when the national launch was done and currently we have 41 Counties out of the 47 having launched the facilities,” she said
Kariuki said the other six remaining Counties would by December launch and therefore covering the whole country.
“If we have managed to do 280,000 of the targeted 800,000 girls in the ages of 10 years within a month its commendable because we have the desired political and County support.
“There have been disruptions because schools were closed. Examinations were and are also ongoing and also heavy rains in northern areas with a challenge of roads being impassable, but all of us are on course,” she said
She explained that introduction of the vaccine would not only stop families from sinking out of catastrophic expenditure due to cancer but also is an investment considering there are close to 30,000 Kenyans dying every year because of the various cancers with breast and cervical cancer leading.
The CS said that Kenya being the 115th country in the world to introduce the vaccine is not a mistake and is an issue proven beyond science since the outcome of the pilot phase done had also confirmed there was much advanced effect on the vaccine
Henrietta Geiger, Director, People and Peace of European Commission said prevention is much less costly than treatment and that this fact was enough as a selling argument for vaccine.
“With reduction of price, the roll out can be on a massive scale and I laud Kenyans for taking leadership role in doing it as a pilot initiative and taking risk which has succeeded despite the difficulties they have had,” she said.
Benda Kithaka, chair of Women 4 Cancer said civil society supports the HPV vaccine as one of the interventions that is available to the Kenyan populace and are convinced that the vaccine is a tool towards elimination of cancer.
“By combining screening with HPV vaccine, we will be protecting our girls now and securing their future and as civil society we still need to talk loudly to convince the dissenting voices and ensure our girls are protected,” she said.
Kithaka said however that their work as civil society was not done and that they would also in the future hold communities and governments accountable in sustainability and systems strengthening as the roll out of the vaccine continues and also in delivery.
WHO Country Representative, Dr. Rudi Eggers said HPV vaccine is one of the preventative measures that are almost magical.
“You give a child two injections and that child is protected at least 15 years and probably for life,” Dr Eggers said.
Wednesday’s dialogue and interactive session came on the heels of the ICPD meeting that is ongoing in Nairobi and is addressing health issues of women and girls.
Kenya successfully launched the HPV vaccine into the routine immunization programme last month to all 10-year-old girls with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance support.
By Wangari Ndirangu and Rosebell Njeri