As Kenya battles the Covid-19 pandemic, concern is rising over the low numbers of girls getting vaccinated against cervical cancer.
An official update on the programme indicates that more than 400,000 girls aged 10 missed out on the first phase of the exercise.
“Of the 800,000 girls targeted to be vaccinated within one year of introduction, 359,000 have so far been reached so far,” acting Health Services Director-General Patrick Amoth says in the “Status Brief on HPV Vaccine Implementation as at July 9, 2020”.
The government kicked off the cervical cancer immunisation programme on October 18, 2019.
Speaking at the launch of the exercise in Mombasa County, the then Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki said the vaccine would become part of the country’s routine vaccination programme.
“Cervical cancer is the leading cause of death among female reproductive cancers in Kenya. Working with partners like Gavi, Unicef and the WHO to introduce the HPV vaccine into our routine immunisation programme is an important step forward in ensuring the health and long-term prosperity of the Kenyan people,” she said.
The first doses were administered in the same month, with the second slated for March 2020.
The jab was meant to protect the girls from cervical cancer that is mainly caused by the HPV infection once they become sexually active.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of schools, however, targets have not been met.
The fear of visiting facilities among Kenyans has also affected the drive.
Dr Amoth however, reassured the public that the services are still being provided at public health facilities.
“Approximately 9,000 private, public and faith-based health facilities are offering the HPV vaccine free of charge in coordination with 35,000 primary schools,” Dr Amoth said in the brief sent to the Nation.
He said the programme has proven a success but added that the pandemic slowed efforts to ensure as many girls as possible are protected from cervical cancer.
“Public response has been immense, with a high demand for the vaccine. However, fewer girls were reached during the school holidays in December. The pandemic has further compounded this situation,” he said.
The medic, who is also the Vice President of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO), attributed the slowdown in vaccination uptake to the closure of schools to protect learners from the virus.
“The closure of schools for the December holidays, and subsequently due to Covid-19 concerns, reduced the momentum for vaccination, given that the strategy strongly involved targeted outreaches in schools,” he said.
He added that restrictions announced by the government on the number of people that can meet also affected mass vaccination campaigns.
To ensure continued service delivery, the director-general said the ministry is engaged in virtual meetings with county governments and other partners to mobilise communities and normalise the process.
Dr Amoth also said the ministry has enough vaccines for a year.
“No serious shortages have been reported across the country since introduction. No stock-outs have been reported at any level,” he said.
According to Globocan’s 2018 estimates,nine women die of cancer every day in Kenya.
The human papillomavirus is the main cause of cervical cancer, which is the leading cancer in Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 44.
There are over 100 types of HPV, with at least 14 known to cause cancer.
According to the WHO, types 16 and 18 are mostly responsible for 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases.
An estimated 5,250 cases are diagnosed in the country every year, with 3,280 dying of the preventable disease annually.
According to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi), safe and effective HPV vaccines can prevent up to 90 per cent of all cervical cancer cases.
Gavi supported the rollout of the vaccine in the country.
Ms Benda Kithaka, who heads the Women4Cancer Early Detection and Treatment Advocacy and Cancer Care Group, warned that cancer management in Kenya will be impaired if the pandemic is not controlled on time.
“We are concerned that the pandemic will have an adverse long term effect on the cervical cancer management programme. If the cases continue to increase, the government will be forced to allocate more health funding to control the spread,” said the anti-cancer activist.
Ms Kithaka, a member of the Advocacy, Communications and Social Mobilisation Technical Working Group at the Ministry of Health’s National Vaccines and Immunisation Programme, urged women to take their daughters to public health facilities for the vaccine.
“The vaccine is free in public health facilities. Women need to take their daughters there for immunisation,” she said.
Ms Ann Mbogori, Karen Rotary Club’s President, said the charitable organisation is running an advocacy campaign to get girls vaccinated.
Ms Mbogori said the plans were part of the rotarians’ commitment to increasing cervical awareness and encouraging women to go for treatment if diagnosed with the condition.
“We are working with partners in promoting the HPV immunisation programme for our daughters,” she said.
According to Nairobi’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Josephine Mbae, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services included the vaccine in campaigns between June 18 and 19 in parts of the county including Kamunkuji, Mathare, Dagoretti, Kasarani, Kibra, Langata, Starehe, Kariokor, Embakasi North and Dandora.
“The vaccination is ongoing in maternal and child health (MCH) facilities in all our sub-counties as part of routine immunisation. We are targeting 30,000 girls in the first phase,” said Dr Mbae.
“Our main challenge is low turnout due to misinformation especially coming from the faith-based communities,” she added.
To address the problem, the county health department is engaging religious leaders on the need to protect girls from infection.