A professor of radiology, Ifeoma Okoye, has called for increased sensitisation and public engagement to counter misinformation and myths about the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
Mrs Okoye, director of the University of Nigeria Nsukka Centre for Clinical Trials, made this statement in an interview with journalists on Saturday in Lagos.
The Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted virus. An individual can contract HPV by engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus.
Almost all cervical cancer cases (99 per cent) are linked to infection with high-risk HPV.
On October 24, the federal government introduced the HPV vaccine into the routine immunisation system to prevent cervical cancer among girls aged nine to 14 years.
The vaccination targets 7.7 million girls, marking the largest number in a single round of HPV vaccination in the African region.
The girls will receive a single dose of the vaccine, which is highly effective in preventing infection with HPV types 16 and 18, known to cause at least 70 per cent of cervical cancers.
However, mixed reactions followed the introduction of the vaccine. While some members of the public were ecstatic, others expressed concerns about vaccine safety, fearing that it might promote promiscuity or cause infertility.
These concerns led some parents in some communities to prevent their children from being inoculated with the vaccine.
Mrs Okoye, who is also the founder of “Breast Without Spot,” an NGO, stated that some people lack adequate knowledge about the importance of the vaccine for adolescent girls’ health.
“Some people are in denial. They don’t want to have anything to do with cancer because of the erroneous belief that showing interest might make them get it.
“They keep saying, ‘It is not my portion,’ and they run and live in denial.
“I have received numerous calls and messages from parents who were panicking because their girls were about to be immunized in their schools.
“I calmed them and educated them on the importance, safety, and efficacy of the HPV vaccine as a cancer prevention tool critical to protecting their daughters’ future,” she said.
She noted that equipping citizens with critical information would enable them to make informed decisions, irrespective of being exposed to widespread rumours and misinformation.
According to her, the vaccine is not a new scientific discovery, and evidence has shown its efficacy in protecting women from cervical cancer.
She added that Australia, through the vaccine, eliminated cervical cancer two years ago, stressing that preventing vaccine-preventable deaths should be the goal of every country.
Mrs Okoye noted that several studies and clinical trials had been conducted by Nigerian researchers and the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
“Every day, over 20 women die from cervical cancer in Nigeria, and this is disturbing because these are preventable deaths. The figure could be higher because some of them are not reported.
“If people dying from cervical cancer had these opportunities, they would be grateful. The right time to prevent the virus is before sexual exposure.
“The target age of 9-14 was determined through a study conducted in Nigeria, as it is the age when most young girls get initiated into sexual activity.
“The vaccine doesn’t prevent pregnancy, nor does it protect against other sexually transmitted diseases, but it safeguards our girls from the grip of cervical cancer,” she said.
According to her, many developed countries have vaccinated their girls and boys against HPV, noting that global supply shortages, caused by COVID-19 disruptions, slowed Gavi-supported vaccine introductions to many African countries.
Mrs Okoye noted that Cervarix and Gardasil vaccines cost between N35,000 and N60,000, respectively, per dose in a few health facilities providing the HPV vaccine. She noted that this cost is unaffordable for many citizens.
She advised Nigerians to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the government’s intervention, as the vaccines are free and powerful tools for saving women’s lives.
The professor stressed that increasing and maintaining vaccination uptake was vital for vaccines to achieve their success, and efforts should be intensified to dispel misinformation that could fuel vaccine hesitancy.
She noted that this was critical for vaccine shelf life and to avoid a repeat of expired vaccines, which happened during the COVID-19 vaccination program.
Mrs Okoye said that efforts should be intensified to strengthen public knowledge through increased sensitisation to change behaviour, constant media engagement, and sharing of survivors’ stories.
The professor advised parents of girls aged 15 and above, who are interested in the vaccine for their daughters, to have HPV testing done to ensure they don’t have the virus before they can get vaccinated.
She also advised older women to participate in routine cervical cancer screening programs.
According to the World Health Organisation, in Nigeria, cervical cancer is the third most common cancer and the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths among women aged between 15 and 44 years.
Data from the health agency showed that Nigeria recorded 12,000 new cases and 8,000 deaths from cervical cancer in 2020.