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A silent killer: the story of cervical cancer in Africa

There is a silent killer sweeping at an alarming rate through Africa, and its name - cervical cancer. The statistics reported are far higher than those from any developed region.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 34 out of every 100,000 African women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 23 out of 100,000 die from it. In North America, they recorded 7 diagnosis out of 100,000 and 3 deaths out of 100,000.[1]


Why these alarming numbers and how can they be lowered?

It’s true that all women are at risk of developing cervical cancer throughout their lives but are some women experiencing a higher percentage of diagnosis and deaths from it depending on where in the world they live? After all the right to health is enshrined in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and you should be guaranteed this right, regardless of where you live.

According to the Mayo Clinic, although the exact causes are not known, cervical cancer is linked to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).  According to the WHO approximately 68000 cases of cervical cancer in Africa are caused by HPV. HPV is an easily preventable disease with an effective vaccine that is available as it targets most HPV types that cause cervical cancer. [2] The vaccine is most effective for girls who are not sexually active so they have not yet been exposed to potential diseases and as studies show the vaccine provides long lasting protection. Yet this is not the only option for prevention. Condoms as well can protect from diseases such as HPV but unfortunately HPV can be transmitted in other forms so complete protection is not offered.

According to the WHO, screening the target age group of women for HPV is key in lowering the death rate associated with cervical cancer. However the solution goes far beyond targeting the HPV. It starts by raising awareness, improving health infrastructures to incorporate these needs and also tightening policies so that there is a framework in place where women can get the adequate medical care that they need.  The reason why there is such a high death rate in African women is that most of the cancers are detected at a very advanced stage. Introducing simple solutions such as mandatory cervical screening of the targeted age group can help to improve detection.


What is the current situation?

In July of this year Namibia played host to the 8th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer in Africa (SCCA). This year’s theme was “Moving Forward to end Cervical Cancer by 2030: Universal Access to Cervical Cancer Prevention”.[3]

At this conference it was acknowledged that in the past, Africa has been weak at dealing with the reality facing Africa as regards to (non-communicable diseases) NCDs and cancers in particular. Co-operation was discussed as a key concept, calling on ‘governments, regional economic communities and the African Union to co-ordinate interventions and work together to effectively expand and modernize health care delivery in the continent.’ [4]


Moving forward

The agenda of this conference marks Africa’s commitment to improve the situation on cervical cancer. The solution seems so simple yet a long road remains to lower the death toll significantly If anything should be taken from this, it should be that co-operation will play an integral part in the fight against this killer.


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Koshiki is a Health and Human Rights Advocate for Engage Africa Foundation. She holds her Masters in Peace Operations, Humanitarian Law and Conflict from the National University of Ireland, Galway. She currently resides in Vancouver, Canada.


[1]  “Cervical Cancer Common Amongst African Women” World Health Organization Africa   

[2]  Centre for Disease Control and Prevention website

[3]  UICC Global Cancel Control “Moving Forward to End Cervical Cancer by 2030”

[4] Ibid. 



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