Zambian First Lady and MTV Africa star join forces against cervical cancer
Two charismatic African women, from different generations and representing different audiences, joined forces at the Partners’ Forum on Thursday to emphasise the importance of raising awareness about a life-saving vaccine against cervical cancer.
Her Excellency Christine Kaseba capitalises on her position as the First Lady of Zambia, a qualified doctor and a member of the Forum of African 1st Ladies to advocate for women’s health, nationally and across Africa.
Vanessa Mdee, the 22-year-old Tanzanian presenter of a weekly show on MTV Africa writes an awareness blog for her fans and tweets on women’s issues.
Both were speaking from the same platform at the Forum to underline the importance of communication, traditional and modern, in ensuring African girls have access to a vaccine that will protect them from a cancer that claims 275,000 women’s lives every year, most of them in developing countries.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can protect against 70 percent of cervical cases and, since last year, GAVI is offering support to developing countries to introduce the vaccine into their routine immunisation programmes.
Uganda and Rwanda are already approved for funding subject to clarification, while 15 other countries are awaiting a final decision on their applications However, some groups in African society are suspicious of the HPV vaccine.
The vaccine should be administered before sexuality, in the nine to 13 age group. Mothers are suspicious that administering the vaccine raises sexual awareness at an early age and encourages girls to be sexually active –even though official data suggests this is not the case.
“This is especially true among religious groups,” said Kaseba, “our Government has developed a communications strategy that is not selling HPV as a defence against sexually transmitted diseases but a way to stop a particularly deadly form of cancer.
“Because many girls top going to school at the age of five, our information campaign reaches out to Churches where it’s easy to find groups of girls on a Sunday, as well as village chiefs who tend to know what is going on in their neighbourhood,” she said. “We also go to marketplaces as we know that girls tend to go with their parents to buy food.
Vanessa, who first learnt about the HPV vaccine when she lost her grandmother to cervical cancer, believes advocacy is neglecting the very people it is designed to help – and uses social media to get her message across
“Sometimes young girls and women have minds of their own,” she said, “these women can make the choices now so we should talk to them. Use the people that I can hear in blogs and on twitter to convey the information. Lets speak to the girls.”
“When I tweeted my friends about the death of my grandmother, I was amazed how many people didn’t know about HPV. So I said, I’m going to talk to the people I hang out with, to help ensure there is a cervical cancer generation that we can detect and cure.