The authorities should give attention to this public health issue

The most prevalent types of cancer in Nigeria are breast, cervical, prostate and colorectal. But the number of deaths arising from cervical cancer, even at second place, is staggering. Some 26 women die of the disease in the country every day. Even more frightening, the World Health Organisation’s projects a 25 per cent increased mortality in the next decade in the absence of widespread intervention. The irony is that cervical cancer, unlike other cancers, is preventable.

Cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb) is one of the most common cancers that affect a woman’s reproductive organs. Dr. Marliyya Zayyan, consultant Oncologist at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria noted that all Nigerian sexually-active women are at the risk of cervical cancer. Indeed, a sexually transmitted virus is implicated in most cases of cervical cancer. The virus called HPV, short for Human Papilloma Virus, is passed on during sexual intercourse. Perhaps that explains why the disease afflicts more of those who engaged in early sex, women with multiple sexual partners, in addition to those who smoke and had their immune system weakened due to poor nutrition. According to the WHO estimates, Nigeria has a population of about 40 million women aged 15 years and above who are at the risk of developing cervical cancer.

At the early stage, the disease is innocuous as it produces no signs or symptoms. According to authorities, depending on the individual, it can take between five to 30 years for the virus to mature into full-blown cancer. By that time it is too late and already life threatening. As the cancer grows, the tell-tale signs are vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause. Other symptoms of the ailment are pains during intercourse and watery or bloody vaginal discharge with foul odour. At this stage, the cancer is already at an advance stage where little can be done. In most cases the affected woman dies painfully and miserably.

However, this unnecessary waste of lives ought not be. Cervical cancer can be prevented through screening. In many western societies for example, cases of cervical cancers had been contained drastically due to universal cancer screening. It is also curable if detected at an early stage and treatment is said to be simple and cheap. There are vaccines for the prevention of the ailment.

But the high casualty rate from the disease in Nigeria is more a combination of the state of our health facilities and ignorance. Most Nigerian hospitals and medical centres lack the diagnostic capacity to quickly detect and treat cancer infections. On the other hand most of the affected women are ignorant low income earners, often located far from health institutions. Even when they live within range of such institutions a good number of them do not have the means to access the medical facilities.

That is why we call on the authorities to embark on campaigns to raise the level of public awareness of this leading killer among women particularly rural women. The burden of cancer in Nigeria is enormous. We believe that the task of saving its citizens from the scourge remains essentially with government which has to provide both the basic health facilities to combat the disease and to create the enabling environment that can facilitate the collaboration of the private sector in tackling the menace.
Increased awareness and increased funding for health care initiatives – by government, donor agencies, and development partners – would drastically curtail the incidence of this silent killer. Indeed, the government should incorporate cervical cancer screening programme into the primary health care while treatment should be subsidised. The vaccine for cervical cancer should also be incorporated into the immunisation plan. By so doing, we can contain the incidence of cervical cancer and turn attention to the more virulent variants of cancers.