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WHO targets cervical cancer to reduce cases, deaths

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Nov 17 (.) – Vaccinating nine out of 10 girls under the age of 15 against cervical cancer and improving screening and treatment for women could reduce infections by 40% and save 5 million lives for 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday.

Cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer among women globally, is a preventable disease, but it affects at least 570,000 each year and kills 311,000, the UN agency said.

Almost all cases are related to infection with types of human papillomavirus (HPV) transmitted through sexual contact. Infection rates are twice as high in developing countries and death rates are three times higher than in high-income countries.

“If we do nothing about this disease, the number of cases will increase and the number of deaths will also increase by 21% by 2030,” said Dr. Princess Nothemba Simelela of South Africa, WHO deputy director general, at a press conference.

The health ministers of its 194 member states last week backed a strategy aimed at eliminating cervical cancer, which was launched on Tuesday.

“We want countries to aim for 90% of girls under 15 years of age to be vaccinated, 70% of eligible women identified and treated, 90% of women with invasive cancer treated,” Simelela said.

Some labs and other tools developed during the COVID-19 pandemic will be useful for cervical cancer screening, and the new tests should speed up results and treatment, he said.

“With this technology, we can get a diagnosis in 20 minutes and the woman can be treated immediately on the spot, allowing for a visit in one day and immediate healing from this precancerous lesion,” added Simelela.

But there is often a stigma around cervical cancer, he said.

“The way it shows, you start to have a smelly discharge, you start to rot from the inside out. It’s a painful cancer and they don’t want to talk about it.” (By Stephanie Nebehay; Edited in Spanish by Juana Casas)