Rwanda fights cervical cancer with information

“There are many challenges about misinformation out there,” says Uwimana Pelagia, Community Health Officer at the Ruhuha Health Center in Rwanda. For instance, she says she was “surprised to know” that cervical cancer is preventable.

Women and health care workers need good information if they are going to control cervical cancer. BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) has joined an effort to address this need, and offer screenings and treatment, in Africa, where cancer is deadlier than malaria.

“Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in women in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to research in the British Journal of Cancer. The problem is so bad that the World Health Organization found “19 of the top 20 countries with the highest cervical cancer burden were in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018.” Furthermore, “An estimated 570,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 311,000 women died from the disease.”

Without intervention, “annual cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) could reach 1 million by 2030, nearly double the 520,000 deaths from cancer that occurred in 2020. Cancer incidence is also projected to double by 2040 to more than 1.4 million cases per year,” according to a May 9 news release from The Lancet Oncology.

That is why intervention is so important.

“Projected trends underscore the devastating costs of inaction on cancer incidence rates and cancer mortality in sub-Saharan Africa,” Dr. Wilfred Ngwa of Johns Hopkins Medicine and USA/ICT University in Cameroon says in The Lancet Oncology news release. “While the list of barriers hindering effective cancer control in the region is long, the pursuit of robust cancer registries, effective cancer control plans, early cancer screening and detection, and the integration of palliative care into the cancer care pathway is especially critical.”

A treatable problem

Cervical cancer is one of the most profoundly treatable forms of cancer in the world. Once one of the most common causes of cancer deaths among American women, “the death rate dropped significantly with the increased use of the Pap test,” says the American Cancer Society. And in the UK, the disease was “almost eliminated” in women born after Sept. 1, 1995.

These statistics make the situation in Africa all the more heart-wrenching.

In response, hospitals, doctors, and communities in Africa are tackling the problem head on. BVGH, a nonprofit founded by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) to advance global health in developing nations, has partnered with the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) and Ministry of Health to develop and implement an “Educate, Screen, and Treat” (EST) program for cervical cancer.

The EST program “will improve women’s health and eradicate cervical cancer in our district,” says Dr. Leon Bonfils, a Gynecologist at the Nyamata District Hospital (DH). “We will enhance awareness of our (local) population. And we will have a cervical screening center in our health facility to keep this service running and help our women.”

The program takes a holistic approach to preventing, detecting, and screening for cervical cancer, so it not only offers access to better medical resources, but also ensures that medical infrastructures and professionals are ready to address the need in the long and short term.

Thousands screened

So far, the EST program reports, 6,567 women have been screened for cervical cancer, leading to:

  • 342 women treated with thermal ablation
  • 32 women referred for LEEP
  • 33 women referred for cervical biopsy
  • 948 women opting to have clinical breast examinations
  • 143 women referred for breast ultrasound, and
  • 38 women referred to Rwanda Military Hospital for urgent treatment of suspected cervical or breast cancer

The program aims to address African women’s health in the long term. Among other gains reported, 581 community health workers have been trained to educate women on cervical cancer, and 52 nurses and midwives have been taught theory and practical cervical health skills.

“After the EST program, I feel fully involved in cervical and breast cancer management,” says Dr. Elie Nitereka, a general practitioner at Nyamata DH. “I am now able and available to provide care for every patient.”

As the project continues, more medical professionals and treatment facilities will be developed, more women will be screened, treated, and as saved, and more people will get access to empowering information about their health.

“You can be treated if sick and if not you can know your stats,” one EST program participant says, “I now have peace of mind.”

That’s the power of good information.

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