Thank you to the Ministry of Health and Social Services for inviting me to speak at this event today. I know it is a little strange for a man to give remarks at an event about a female cancer. I will never know the fear of this cancer growing in my own body, or the need to be screened myself. But the threat of cervical cancer is not a distant one in my mind.
First, let me speak as a physician. Like the Honourable Minister, I am a medical doctor. I have treated people with cancer, including women who have had early cervical cancer and those with advanced stages of cervical cancer. I remember one patient who was a pregnant women with newly discovered, advanced cervical cancer. She was dealing with major surgery, losing the baby she wanted, and ending any chance of future pregnancies, all in one day, and all while battling a deadly cancer. She survived, but any of us can imagine the pain she suffered during that battle. Her story is shared by millions of other women, some who were not as fortunate in their outcomes, and they show the importance of clinical guidelines to help prevent these situations.
The guidelines we are launching today are particularly valuable because cervical cancer is detectable, preventable, and treatable. Despite this, data in Namibia shows that the number of cases of cervical cancer is increasing – we have seen a 50% increase in the number of cervical cancer cases in just the last seven years. Cervical cancer is now the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in Namibia.
These guidelines being launched today are vital to help us to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer in Namibia. If we, and I say we as one healthcare provider to another, if we can identify women who have precancerous lesions and treat these lesions before they become cancerous, we are making a real impact on real lives of Namibian women. This is even more urgent for women also living with HIV, because their cervical lesions are four to five times more likely to become deadly cancers. Truly, this is a problem that cannot wait any longer.
We are marking an exciting day for Namibia as these guidelines launch a new phase for cervical cancer screening. By introducing the “screen and treat” approach by using visualization with acetic acid, called VIA, we are eliminating the long waiting times for women to be identified with precancerous lesions and referred for further treatment. With the old system, by the time this care is received, the cancer is often at an advanced stage.
VIA is simple, cost effective, and highly efficient. It utilizes something so humble as table vinegar to identify women with abnormal precancerous lesions. Acetic acid (or vinegar), when applied the women’s cervix, will cause the cervix to change color if there is the presence of abnormal cells. The healthcare provider can immediately see the color change, and treat the abnormal cells with a freezing technique called cryotherapy. By the end of a 15 minute clinical visit, a woman can go from having the threat of precancerous cells growing and turning into cancer, to being completely treated and healthy. That is the kind of high-impact medical services that we providers love to give, and that Namibians want to receive, and now it is here and ready to be spread across the country.
I am very pleased to see that in addition to the launch of these guidelines, the Directorate of Primary Health Care is starting immediately with training for VIA and cryotherapy. I look forward to hearing how this vital training will soon be having an impact at site level.
As healthcare providers, we train in our vocation so that we can save lives. The work of identifying lesions in the cervix, before they become cancerous, is life-saving. These lives are the lives of our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters.
That is the second reason why I am standing here today, not as a doctor but as a son. My own mother developed cervical cancer when I was young. We are blessed that she was in a place to receive quality treatment, and she survived. Cervical cancer is not just about the individual; it affects your loved ones too. As we launch these guidelines today, I call not only on healthcare providers to effectively implement the guidance, but to the women in Namibia, to take these opportunities that will be provided, to get this necessary screening at the right time. Cervical cancer is not just a women’s issue, it affects the families and the greater community; the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons too. This involves all of us. Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that is completely preventable. We need to increase our efforts so that we can see the end of this painful and debilitating disease. Now is the time to stop the growing rates and the lives lost due to cervical cancer.
When preparing for this speech, I read the following quotation: “Sometimes you get to pick your battles, sometimes your battles choose you.” For many people affected by cancer, the battle chose them. We need to change that. CDC and our colleagues at USAID, through support from PEPFAR, are proud to say that we are picking this battle; we are proud to stand here today with the Ministry of Health and Social Services to support the excellent work that is being strengthened to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in Namibia. Through the effective implementation of the National Cervical Cancer Prevention Guidelines, we can, and we will, see a change in Namibia.
In closing, today we are here to celebrate the prevention efforts being launched to address cervical cancer. We recognize those who have survived cervical cancer, we support those who are fighting cervical cancer right now, and we remember those who have been taken from us. May today’s events provide hope and comfort for them and their families that we are doing our part for a better tomorrow for all Namibians.