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Women silently dying from preventable cancer

An RHU nurse testing for cervical cancer at Muko health centre in Kibaale district

At least 200 women in Kabale district tested positive for cervical cancer, in a recent testing drive by Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU).

Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, mostly affects women above 25 years and those with HIV. It is a silent killer in Uganda because people don’t want to test, finding out when it is too late.

“Yet when it’s detected early and you get treatment, it can be cured. It is common in women with HIV/Aids because of their low immunity,” RHU’s Programme Coordinator, Annet Kyalimpa, said.

More than 2,000 women in Kabale district were screened for cervical cancer last week. Kyalimpa said out of the 2,000 screened, 10 per cent had the cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

She said Uganda launched a strategic plan for cervical cancer prevention and control for 2010 to 2014. The strategic plan by the ministry of health (MOH), includes HPV vaccination, testing and treatment.

Kyalimpa said annually, an estimated 500,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 270,000 women die of this devastating disease.
RHU clinical nurse Juliet Kabagabe said: “The human papillomavirus hides under the fold of skin on a penis that is not circumcised, hence affecting it with infections.”

Kabagabe said cervical cancer is spread through sexual intercourse, especially with uncircumcised men.
Circumcision has been proven to prevent cancer of the penis, cervical cancer, and reduce the risk of HIV by up to 60 per cent.

SURVIVING CERVICAL CANCER

Gertrude, 38, a teacher, tested for cervical cancer and HIV/Aids in 2010 and the results were negative. When she got pregnant in 2011, however, she started bleeding in early stages of the pregnancy and bled throughout the pregnancy.

During her labour, doctors said something appeared wrong with her cervix. A week after giving birth, she had a biopsy, where a sample of tissue or cells was removed and examined. A week later she was told that she had cervical cancer and HIV.

“I did second tests and they were positive. However, they told me [the cervical cancer] hadn’t spread which was a huge relief. I was told I needed chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy treatment,” Gertrude said.

RHU nurse Juliet Kabagabe counsels a woman about the importance of testing for cervical cancer

Gertrude was saddened because cancer treatment meant she might not have more children.

“During my treatment, I lost all my hair. I was always tired and sick and they refused me to breastfeed. After two years on treatment, I tested negative. I had no cervical cancer. I attribute my success to early treatment,” she said.

“The doctors advised me to improve my hygiene, avoid multiple sexual partners, smoking and excessive drinking or taking drugs, since they are the major causes of cervical cancer,” Gertrude said.

Kyalimpa says that according to the MOH, cervical cancer is one of two most common causes of cancer-related deaths in Uganda where 3,577 women are diagnosed every year.

About 2,464 die from a disease which is both preventable and curable if detected early. Kabagabe said the cost of cervical cancer treatment is high, which is why in East Africa only Mulago hospital treats patients for free.

The Assistant District Health Officer Kabale district Immaculate Mandera advised women to go for cervical and breast cancer screening at least once a year to know their status, and start early treatment.

zurah@observer.ug

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