By Sharon Atieno

Competing priorities in the continent is a major contributor to Africa’s low uptake of human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, which is crucial in prevention of cervical cancer.

Though there are more than 100 types of HPV- 13 are cancer-causing-with two types resulting in 70% of all cervical cancer.

Cancer of the cervix ranks as the leading cause of female cancer deaths in Africa, leading to the loss of 81,687 women yearly, yet, only 14 countries have rolled out the HPV vaccine nationally.

“Africa is lagging behind because we still have competing priorities in the region,” said Dr. Phionah Atuhebwe, New Vaccines Introduction Medical Officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) African Regional Office in a press conference.

“We still have very many diseases to deal with. Some of our biggest problems being: TB, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, we are still struggling with outbreaks such as Lassa fever, Ebola, Cholera, Typhoid, which the developed world has gotten rid of.”

The HPV vaccination in the African continent began in 2008 to 2017 with the WHO setting up 27 demonstration programmes in 27 countries. Sierra Leone and Liberia were set to begin their demonstration vaccination programmes in 2014 but the Ebola outbreak in the countries brought everything to a standstill.

Dr. Atuhebwe further notes that the HPV vaccine is an expensive vaccine which requires adequate preparation before a country can enroll for it. The demonstration programme runs for around 2 years before the country can roll it up nationally.

Noting that WHO and its partners invest heavily in preparing the country together with the country’s ministry of health, she says: “HPV vaccine is an expensive vaccine and we cannot afford to lose any single dose. We cannot afford for the country not to take up the vaccine and it expires in the country.”

She adds that not all countries qualify to introduce a new vaccine as some of them are still struggling with the traditional vaccines that they have.

“If the country has not reached 70% of their children with the third dose of pentavalent vaccine which prevents Whooping cough, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Hepatitis B and Haemophillus Influenza, it shows that the immunization programme is not strong enough to handle another vaccine,” noted Dr. Atuhebwe.

“If we bring a new vaccine, it will disrupt even the little they have. So they first have to focus on growing the immunization programme to a better level before they disrupt it with a new vaccine because a new vaccine is another process.”

Though the HPV vaccine is targeted for cervical cancer, it will also be able to reduce its percentage in causing other cancers as well as diseases such as genital warts.

In 2011, Rwanda became the first low-income country to provide universal access to HPV vaccine and the first African country to begin an HPV national roll-out with Gavi support. Since 2014, other countries followed suit including Botswana, South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya among others.