More accessible cervical cancer screening vital

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer ribbon. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Cervical cancer, predominantly driven by the human papillomavirus (HPV), ranks as the second-most prevalent cancer among women aged 15-44 in Kenya.

Every year, 5,236 women receive the devastating diagnosis, 61 per cent of whom succumb to the disease, according to the latest Kenya HPV Centre data. It is, tragically, the leading cause of female cancer-related mortality in the country.

Some 9.1 per cent of Kenyan women carry cervical HPV-16 or HPV-18 infections at any time, silently hosting a potential precursor to the lethal cancer.

Indeed, a striking 99.7 per cent of cervical cancers can be directly attributed to the presence of HPV with 63.1 per cent linked to HPV strains 16 and 18.

Women need to be equipped with the knowledge and resources to shield themselves against HPV and its potentially dire consequences. Prevention, early detection and treatment must be at the forefront of these efforts, driven by improved access to screening and vaccination programmes and education and awareness campaigns.

Central to that is the imperative of regular screening. The disease has a significantly higher likelihood of successful treatment if detected and addressed in its initial stages. With timely diagnosis and appropriate medical intervention, recovery is promising.

The National Cancer Institute of the US Department of Health and Human Services puts the chances of a patient surviving for the next five years at 91 per cent if diagnosed early.

But despite efforts by the government and other stakeholders, test rates remain dismally low with studies showing only 16-19 per cent of eligible Kenyan women aged 18-69 years undergo screening. Among the barriers is the invasive nature of traditional screening procedures, which can deter women from seeking this vital preventive measure.

This barrier can, however, be circumvented using the self-collection HPV DNA kit, recently introduced into the market through a partnership between Old Mutual Group and the pathologists Lancet Kenya. This innovative tool empowers women to collect a vaginal specimen themselves, which is then sent to the laboratory for testing.

By providing a less invasive alternative, these kits help alleviate some of the discomfort associated with traditional screening methods, potentially encouraging more women to undergo screening.

While self-collection kits are a step in the right direction, addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors that limit access to screening services is essential to making a meaningful impact. The cost of screening remains prohibitive for many with a test costing upwards of Sh2,000. This expense may be widely out of reach, further widening the gap in access to essential healthcare services.

Countries like Australia, which have high vaccine coverage rates (80 per cent in women, 76 per cent in men in 2019), have seen a significant decrease in vaccine-type HPV infections and precancerous cervical lesions with expectations of reduced cervical cancer incidence.

- Dr Matolo is the medical practice manager at Old Mutual Health. [email protected].