In Masvingo, in the rural Gutu District in southeastern Zimbabwe, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontièrs (MSF) is working with the health ministry to provide simple, effective cervical cancer prevention strategies.
Cervical cancer in Zimbabwe accounts for 1,000 deaths and 5,000 new diagnoses each year. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the country.
In certain countries, including Zimbabwe, the few available radiography and laboratory services are situated only in larger metropolitan areas. Without health insurance, the high costs of biopsies, surgery, and treatment mean that many women, especially from rural areas, cannot afford proper care and end up dying from a disease that is now mostly preventable.
“Cervical cancer is a very dehumanizing cancer,” Severine Caluwaerts, MD, an MSF obstetrician-gynecologist, said in an MSF news story. “You might bleed a lot, you might become incontinent or be in great pain. For an emergency organization, this program might seem unusual, but it’s tragic that we are losing women to preventable diseases like cervical cancer when such effective treatments now exist.”
The MSF is now supporting the health ministry in the rural Gutu District by offering cancer screenings and on-the-spot cryotherapy – a treatment for pre-cancerous lesions.
Since the program began, in 2015, MSF has screened more than 6,500 women, 558 of whom required cryotherapy. When women have more severe lesions, they are referred to the capital, Harare, for the Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP), and the organization covers their transport and medical costs.
“We believe that screening and treating should be done in one visit if a woman agrees, and the majority do,” said sister Tendai Chigura, who has trained other nurses to perform cryotherapy. “MSF wants to eventually see these preventive screenings brought into all HIV and family planning programs for women.”
But knowledge and awareness about the disease is increasing among Zimbabwean women. All those who visit the hospitals in Gutu District are encouraged to come for a screening. In the waiting areas, nurses run health education sessions and MSF health promoters travel to surrounding villages to increase awareness of the disease and how important prevention is.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about cervical cancer,” said sister Mercy Mandizvo. “Sometimes, women are ashamed because it is sexually transmitted. The link with HIV also means there is stigma,” she said.
Both Chigura and Mandizvo maintain close contact with women diagnosed with more serious forms of cancer, requiring further treatment in the capital.
The MSF also is supporting the Zimbabwean health ministry to vaccinate more than 100,000 girls between 9 and 14 years old in the Gutu District to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) transmission.
The organization also works with national health ministries in Kenya, Malawi, the Philippines, and Swaziland, to provide screening, early treatment, and referrals, as well as HPV vaccination campaigns for schoolgirls in South Africa.