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Fighting the “Neighbour’s Disease” in Mozambique

MAPUTO, Oct 31 2014 (IPS) - Mozambique is reeling under the twin burden of HIV and cervical cancer. Eleven women die of cervical cancer every day, or 4,000 a year. Yet this cancer is preventable and treatable, if caught early.

Among African countries, Mozambique vies neck and neck with Malawi for the saddest statistics.

Mozambique has the highest cervical cancer cumulative risk and mortality – seven out of 100 newborn girls will develop this cancer and five will die from it.

Malawi is first in incidence (new cases per year), with Mozambique tailing second.

Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a common virus with 40 types. Many people carry it dormant and often it goes away by itself. But two types of HPV cause cervical cancer.

HIV and HPV are deadly allies. HPV infection doubles the risk of acquiring HIV while HIV hastens progression of cervical cancer.

Some numbers will give an idea of Mozambique’s burden:

  • 7.3 million women over age 15, who can potentially acquire HPV through sex.
  • 820,000 women over age 15 living with HIV. Cervical cancer advances quickly with a weak immune system.
  • 4,000 deaths of cervical cancer a year, not counting those who die at home, undiagnosed, untreated and unreported

Step by step, health authorities are tackling the problem with a three-pronged strategy: information for prevention, routine screening for detection, and better treatment.

There is even talk of bringing radio therapy equipment and training technicians. In terminal stages, radio therapy shrinks cancer and reducing excruciating pain.

Routine screening for this cancer is now offered with family planning services. Diagnosis and treatment via cryotherapy (freezing) can be done in one visit. The Ministry of Health hopes to cover all districts by 2017.

The mass media campaign had a tireless advocate in the former First Lady, Maria da Luz Guebuza. The Association for the Fight against Cancer, a volunteer group, has multiplied its outreach and helps patients at the oncology wards of main hospitals.

Information is dispelling the perception of cervical cancer as “the neighbour’s disease”, brought upon women by a neighbour’s curse or by witchcraft.

The situation is still dire; needs outpace resources, both human and financial. But it is a great improvement over just three years ago, when only a handful of clinics offered screening, and millions of women had never heard about HPV and cervical cancer at all.


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