Women in Vanuatu will have access to lifesaving cervical cancer screening, vaccination and treatment, thanks to a transformational program launched yesterday in Port Vila that is being rolled out across the archipelago nation.
The Eliminating Cervical Cancer in the Western Pacific (ECCWP) program in Vanuatu, where women are seven times more likely to die from cervical cancer than those in Australia, is a collaboration with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health, Vanuatu Family Health Association and Australian organisations including the Daffodil Centre (a joint venture between Cancer Council NSW and The University of Sydney), the Kirby Institute UNSW Sydney, the Australian Centre for Cervical Cancer Prevention, and Family Planning Australia.
The program has been made possible by investment from Minderoo Foundation and other funding partners and is on track to prevent cervical cancer and deaths from cervical cancer in Vanuatu.
More than 5,000 women have so far been screened for HPV, or human papillomavirus, which causes most cervical cancers. A further 25,000 women are due to benefit from a cervical cancer screening program that involves same day screening and treatment.
Thanks to a range of initiatives, the Vanuatu Government declared yesterday that it would be the first nation in the Pacific to commit to a national strategy for the elimination of cervical cancer.
The Hon Leonard Joshua Pikioune, Minister of Health said, "In Vanuatu, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women. Every year we have women who have lost their lives, and the number is increasing every year. Today we are proud that Vanuatu is the first country in the pacific to commit to the elimination of cervical cancer.”
Until now, vaccination, screening and treatment for cervical cancer have not been widely implemented across the Pacific. The World Health Organization has put forward coverage targets to be achieved by 2030 that will set all countries firmly on a path towards the elimination of cervical cancer: to vaccinate 90 percent of girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) before age 15; HPV-based screening for 70 percent of women at age 35 and again at 45; and ensure that 90 percent of women diagnosed with cervical pre-cancer and cancer are treated.
Dr Margaret Tarere, an Obstetrician Gynaecologist at Vila Central Hospital said that cervical cancer screening and vaccination delivered through the program is improving the outcomes and experiences of women in Vanuatu. “HPV screening has a lot of positive impacts in terms of patient satisfaction of awareness and their health seeking behaviours, knowing that they are free from the virus. It means that positive cases can be treated in a timely manner, preventing them from developing cervical cancer and at the same time preventing the financial, social, psychosocial burden on their families, their community and Vanuatu as a whole,” Dr Tarere said.
Professor Andrew Vallely, Head of Global Reproductive Health at the Kirby Institute, said that the national strategy will save lives.
“We congratulate the Vanuatu Ministry of Health on leading the Pacific region with their commitment to the elimination of cervical cancer,” Prof Vallely said. “Cervical cancer remains one of the most common causes of death among women in our region. Through the ECCWP program, we are thrilled to support Vanuatu’s cervical cancer elimination strategy and the tremendous leadership and vision of the Vanuatu Ministry of Health. It is truly a privilege to be part of this landmark endeavour.”
Dr Boniface Damutalau, Gynaecologist and Obstetrician at Vila Central Hospital added that the screening programs for cervical cancer in Vanuatu were vital in helping communities without the resources or infrastructure to access screening and treatment.
“Without cervical cancer screening, the only time you know there is a problem with cervical cancer is once it is too late, advanced disease. In the early stages of cervical cancer, you don’t have any symptoms or signs, the only way you can diagnose it is through screening,” he said.
“This project is a big relief. Not only can we provide screening for age-eligible women across Vanuatu through a combination of fixed clinics and outreach, but we also don’t have to wait for results. We can treat those who test positive for cancer-causing HPV types immediately on the same day. With population spread over 69 inhabited islands, this is important,” Dr Damutalau said.
Florina, a Port Vila woman, shared her experience of receiving the screening and treatment as part of the program at Vila Central Hospital.
"As a single mother, I am very grateful that I get to find out earlier so that I can get treatment in time and I can spend time with kids; see them grow in the future as some of them are still really small. I believe that if we do not come forward to get tested, we may not live as long as we could have, so I think that it is really good that we have this easy access to check up on our health."
Tess Howard, Head of Cancer Prevention at Minderoo Foundation highlighted the potential for the collaborative approach applied in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea as part of the ECCWP to be used in other nations where women are suffering from cervical cancer.
“Global issues need global support to achieve true impact. When philanthropy, industry, researchers, community organisations and governments come together, we have the power to advance lasting change for a fairer future for women and their families in the Western Pacific," Ms Howard said.
Minderoo Foundation’s investment is bolstered by donations of equipment and consumables from Cepheid and Copan.