Conquering Cancer is a global hope

Cervical Cancer Elimination

Is conquering cancer a global hope?

Some thoughts I had after spending a week in Geneva to begin filming for Conquering Cancer.

I found myself sitting in a beautiful boardroom at UNAIDS in Geneva waiting to interview Deputy Executive Director, Dr Shannon Hader. The building itself is grand and somewhat enormous in its position opposite the World Health Organisation.   Sitting in one of many boardrooms waiting to conduct the interview gave me time to think. In front of me, there was a bowl filled with hundreds of red ribbons, on the wall, a plaque to honour Dr Jonathan Max Mann, a pioneer in the international campaign against AIDS and founder of a movement to link health issues with those of human rights. A sombre reminder of a great loss to the world.

Building movements is a significant part of my work as an impact filmmaker.  And as Dr Mann was the architect of the global mobilisation against AIDS, there is a lot to be learned from his work. But today I’m here to learn more about the link between cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS.

I’m eager to discuss the issue of HIV and cervical cancer with Dr Hader.  Recent decades have seen mountains moved to save the lives of HIV positive women through antiretroviral treatment.  Sadly, many of these women now die from what has recently become preventable cancer- cervical cancer.  This is because women who are HIV positive are 5 times more likely to develop cervical cancer.  So what will the global effort to eliminate cervical cancer will mean for women with HIV?

The inequity in healthcare

The vast majority of women on this planet face an inequity in healthcare that those of us living with robust health systems find hard to comprehend.

Take me as an example.  I was getting a bit antsy at my GP’s before I left for Geneva because I was 3 weeks overdue to get my biannual pap smear. My chances of developing cervical cancer due to regular screenings is very low, so it’s really not a big deal to be a month late.

The vast majority of women across the globe, mainly those living in low to middle-income countries, are lucky to have access to screening once, maybe twice, if ever in their lives. Their reality is to present to a clinic when they develop intense pain and/or bleeding. This indicates advanced disease. Often fatal due to the late-stage diagnosis, a lack of access to treatment facilities, financial constraints, proximity to a hospital or all of these reasons.

They will die in pain, often very young, often leaving behind children and loved ones.

But we now know how to prevent this disease.

Conquering Cancer:  A Global Strategy for the elimination of cervical cancer

Part of the solution

My interest in this is because of the groundbreaking work that has resulted in a vaccine that prevents Human Papilloma Viruses (HPV) infection. HPV is now known to cause cervical cancer as well as some head and neck cancers. Vaccination programs are already underway in many countries.  And Australia has lead the charge putting the country on track to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030.

This in and of itself is extraordinary.

Cancer can be prevented!

Cancer has perplexed physicians since the earliest documentation has been found referencing it as a disease. This documentation dates back to ancient Egypt. In recent history, cancer was considered incurable. Even in the early 20th century there were no known cures, only surgery to remove a cancer, survival depended on whether or not the cancer was found before it had metastasised. With the invention of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other medial innovations, many cancers can now be effectively treated.

But to have a solution that can prevent a certain type of cancer, cervical cancer which is the 4th largest killer of women worldwide, is a first in the history of humankind. It’s not a cure, not a treatment, but prevention. It has the potential to take this disease and put it in the history books, just as we’ve done with polio.

It’s remarkable.

Now, all we have to do is administer the vaccine to every child on the planet by the ages of 9 – 14 years old.

A-ha! Now you’re sensing the bigger problem. Perhaps a problem bigger than this cancer itself.


Can it be done?

How do you get every government, in every country to take up the challenge?

For a country to succeed these three things are required.

First, each country needs to make the vaccine available.  This has enormous cost implications, let alone production and supply issues.

Second, they need to strengthen their health system to make delivery of the vaccine and screening programs possible. They need to educate people about what and why they should vaccinate their children. And they need to overcome the anti-vaccier’s who seem to be a growing and powerful influence. Don’t get me started on this…. populations also need to be educated about why women need to participate in cervical screening.

Thirdly, treatment options need to be available to women who are found to have pre cancerous lesions, which if detected early through screening can be removed and prevents cervical cancer from developing.

And of course, you also need accessible treatment resources and facilities to treat any found pre-cancer or cervical cancer.

So here we have a unique opportunity to eliminate cervical cancer globally. But how will we as a global population come together and make this happen?

I’m on the journey to find out and I’ll report back as I learn more.

Drop me an email if you have any questions.

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