GENEVA (Reuters) – Vaccinating nine in 10 girls under 15 against cervical cancer, and improved screening and treatment of women could reduce infections by 40% and save 5 million lives by 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
Cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer among women globally, is a preventable disease but strikes at least 570,000 each year and kills 311,000, the U.N. agency said.
Almost all cases are linked to infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) types transmitted by sexual contact. Infection rates are twice as high in developing countries and death rates three times higher than in high-income countries.
“If we do nothing with this disease the number of cases will increase and the number of deaths will also go up by 21% by 2030,” Dr. Princess Nothemba Simelela from South Africa, WHO assistant director general, told a news briefing.
Health ministers from its 194 member states last week backed a strategy aimed at eliminating cervical cancer, being launched on Tuesday.
“We want countries to aim for 90% of girls under 15 vaccinated, 70% of eligible women identified and treated, 90% of women with invasive cancer treated,” Simelela said.
Some laboratories and other tools developed during the COVID-19 pandemic will be useful for screening for cervical cancer, and new tests should speed results and treatment, she said.
“With this technology, we can get a diagnosis in 20 minutes and the woman can be treated immediately on site, making it possible to have one visit in one day and to be immediately cured of this pre-cancer lesion,” Simelela added.
But there is often a stigma around cervical cancer, she said.
“In the way that it shows, you start getting a smelly discharge, you start rotting from inside. It’s a painful cancer to have and they don’t want to speak about it.”
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Bernadette Baum)