The international HPV awareness day is observed each year to sensitise the global audience on the value of prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of human papillomavirus. These efforts aim to increase awareness and reduce stigma around the disease, thereby eliminating it and lowering the cervical cancer burden.
In Africa, HPV is a highly prevalent virus and as a result cervical cancer has continued to be one of the leading causes of death among women. Health Issues Africa, had the opportunity to interview Benda Kithaka, the founder of KILELE Health Association, a Kenyan non-profit organisation which specialises in empowering people living with chronic conditions such as cancer and other NCDs. In this interview, Benda shares her insights on the challenges, milestones and efforts towards eliminating HPV and cervical cancer Kenya.
1) What are the existing gaps in cancer prevention in Kenya, especially cancers affecting women such as cervical cancer?
The gaps come mostly from awareness and education. Our government is providing the HPV vaccine free of charge for girls between the ages of 10-14 years and screening should be happening in all government hospitals but people are not utilising these resources due to the knowledge gap. They mostly don’t know if these services exist, understand the need to use them or understand how they can access them
2) How do health disparities affect the risk of dying from cervical and other cancers in Kenya?
First there’s the disparity of geographical location. Most cancer care facilities are located in urban centres so women in urban areas are able to access these services faster than those in rural areas. The other disparity is in terms of information access. Women in western countries have been socialised to understand about cervical cancer but in Kenya, the lack of sufficient information and health education,is a challenge. There are also disparities in access to screening, treatment facilities, healthcare workers and financial resources.
3) Is it possible for Kenya and other MIC’s to develop cancer detection and care systems that are less dependent on cancer specialists? If not, how can the skilled workforce be developed?
That’s a double edged sword. Globally, we have technologies that are relying a lot on AI and that’s a field that is still being explored. Kenya being the digital hub of Africa, is ahead in terms of digitising so we could also start thinking about digital health which would minimise the use of the human resource that is already scarce. The only challenge would be piloting and scaling up but there’s a need to take those innovations that are working globally and bring them to Kenya.
4) What is the HPV vaccine uptake in East Africa and what impact has this had in cervical cancer prevention?
Since the vaccine was introduced in 2019, we should be able to show data in the next 10-15 years. Uptake is gaining traction especially since COVID-19 has taught people the value of vaccination and it has created conversations about prevention. In terms of numbers we’ve seen uptake of the first dose and regrettably the second dose is not as well uptaken so the challenge is to get girls and women to understand the need to complete their vaccine doses.
5) Has the vaccination coverage increased after the research on introducing a single shot HPV vaccine in Kenya?
The research was done by KEMRI and they found that 1 dose was proven to be effective in cervical cancer prevention but they will need WHO approvals before this becomes policy. The good thing is that Kenyan scientists discovered this and it has sparked more conversations and interest around the vaccine.
6) What is the role of Kilele Health in curbing cervical cancer in Kenya?
Our role is social mobilisation, coordinating screening in the community, community education using the experiences of survivors to create that impetus for cervical cancer prevention. At the policy level we advise the government on what’s happening on the ground and discuss how we can work more on elimination. We also do research to find out the challenges, stigma etcetera then we craft solutions to inform policy and decision making. We also organise activities that showcase cancer prevention to bring partners and stakeholders together to talk about creating synergies to support the WHO 90-70-90.
7) Has COVID 19 increased the challenges faced in reducing the cervical cancer burden in East Africa?
COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing and a curse on cervical cancer. The blessing is the enhanced conversation in vaccination and the enhanced role of community health workers. The bigger challenge is that most cervical cancer screenings are done at health facilities and COVID-19 came with restrictions so there were a lot of barriers to access to medical services. We are now seeing a bit of a change over but we will start seeing most of the resources that were lost to COVID claimed back by other health service provision including cervical cancer.
Benda Kithaka is a Health Advocacy & Behaviour Change Communications Specialist, with over 20 years’ experience in communications, research, marketing and health advocacy. She is the founder of KILELE Health Association, a Kenyan non-profit organisation, with programs to promote and advocate for Mental, Physical, Social and Economic Wellness, including research and policy interventions.
Benda sits on various global, regional and local Technical Working Groups in an advocacy and advisory role. She co-chairs the AORTIC Advocacy Special Interest Group regionally in Africa, and in Kenya is Co-Chair of the STOP Cervical Cancer technical working group. She is also a Trainer, Facilitator and Public Speaker in advocacy for Women’s Health. Previously she served on the Board of Women4Cancer for nine years, a Kenyan NGO she co-founded in 2012, whose Vision is a Cervical Cancer Free Kenya.
She has received various awards including Finalist in Zuri Awards 2021, Kenyan Network of Cancer Organisations (KENCO) Advocate 2020, International Gynecologic Cancer Society (IGCS) Distinguished Advocacy Award 2019, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) award to participate as the civil society voice in the Regional Consultation on the Elimination of Cervical Cancer in the African Region (May 2019). She is also the Cancer Ambassador of the Year 2016 in Kenya.
Twitter handle: @BendaKithaka