A nationwide cervical cancer screening and prevention programme was introduced in 2000. To screen for cervical cancer, a pap smear is usually performed, while the prevention protocol is to vaccinate as many young women as possible against HPV 16 and 18 using a two-dose vaccine.
However, a host of factors has prevented these outcomes from being, especially among remote or poor communities:
- Vaccine hesitancy: The vaccine is meant to be administered to young girls (between the ages of 9 and 14) prior to them becoming sexually active. These vaccinations are usually administered at schools. However, many parents and learners are withdrawing from the vaccine programme. There is a high level of absenteeism during scheduled vaccine days and only a few of the girls who get the first dose of vaccine show up to get the second dose six months later.
- Language and education barriers: More than 80% of cervical cancer cases occur in low- to middle-income countries like South Africa, and the level of development in a country often correlates to its number of cervical cancer cases. In rural parts of the country, many women are uninformed due to their inability to read or access information about cervical cancer, and the lack of content on the topic available in their home languages.
- Stigma: In some communities, there might be a stigma attached to cervical cancer, and women might fear that their communities will mark them out as promiscuous should they present with symptoms.
- Access to services: Many parts of the country are still inaccessible and poorly serviced by local health facilities. Many women may also not have money to travel to local hospitals or clinics.
Concerted efforts to improve access to services among disadvantaged communities, and to increase awareness of the condition among SA women, are slowly bearing fruit. One such success story is the Khayelitsa Cervical Cancer Screening Project, which has treated over 60 000 women since its inception in 1995, proving that a concerted effort is all that is required to turn around the extremely high incidence of this illness in our country.