Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus worldwide. It is a virus with global health implications and is a significant threat to Africa, where cervical cancer is often linked to persistent HPV infections. Unfortunately, in many African nations, women are disproportionately affected by HPV-related diseases, especially cervical cancer. As of December 2023, there are approximately 425.68 million women aged 15 years and above in Africa who are at risk of developing cervical cancer.

The absence of widespread HPV vaccination initiatives and limited access to screening and treatment services contribute to the region’s high prevalence of HPV infections and associated cancers. Social stigma, cultural beliefs, and healthcare infrastructure challenges further complicate prevention and control efforts. Rwanda was the first African country to implement an HPV vaccination program successfully in 2011, followed by Zambia and Malawi in 2013.

In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed the HPV vaccine for girls aged 9 to 14. Raising awareness about HPV screening is crucial in preventing infections and detecting diseases like cervical cancer early. HPV vaccination has been proven effective in reducing HPV-induced cancers. However, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are lagging in fully vaccinating 90% of girls within the age of 15 by 2030, as set by the WHO. Educating individuals on the virus, its transmission modes, available vaccines, and the importance of regular screenings can empower proactive health protection.

Indeed, HPV vaccine coverage remains low in Africa, with dose completion rates as low as 20% in some countries that introduced the vaccine into their National Immunization Programs (NIPs). However, some countries like Botswana have introduced innovative strategies such as community-based HPV DNA testing through self-sampling and rapid HPV DNA testing at primary healthcare facilities to improve screening and treatment accessibility.

Since 2018, Amref Health Africa has been leading initiatives to address HPV-related issues in Africa, with campaigns such as #Notadeathsentence, which encourages early cancer screenings. Amref aims to raise awareness of HPV, improve accessibility to vaccination and screening, and advocate for policy changes to enhance healthcare delivery in the region.

One standout effort is the community-based education campaigns targeting urban and rural populations and leveraging community-based HPV DNA testing through self-sampling. Health workers and mobile health units facilitate these campaigns, which provide information on HPV prevention strategies and encourage vaccination and screening uptake.

In addition, Amref collaborates with local healthcare providers to strengthen cervical cancer screening programs for timely diagnosis and treatment of at-risk women. By training healthcare workers on screening best practices and treatment protocols, Amref boosts healthcare facilities’ capacity to provide quality care for those impacted by HPV-related diseases.

It is worth commending the efforts of Gavi—the Vaccine Alliance’s HPV revitalization program for announcing that it plans to provide the vaccine to 86 million adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries over the next three years. We should continue to embrace and implement the program as it will help ease supply constraints and introduce new lower-cost suppliers. Kudos to Gavi for this initiative.

Amref’s commitment to “TRANSFORM the health of communities in Africa through investing in the health and lives of women and young people as agents of change in African communities” promises to be realized collectively.

Amref has prioritized engagements with policymakers and stakeholders at local, national and regional levels to increase investment in vaccination programs, improve access to screening, and integrate cervical cancer prevention into existing healthcare systems. Our goal is to combat HPV-related challenges in Africa. Together, we can make a difference.

Story credit: David Mitine – Communications Officer, Global Health Security Unit – Amref Health Africa

First published: Strengthening HPV Awareness in Africa: Impact of Amref Health Africa’s Community-led Initiatives – Newsroom