In the shadows of women’s health, a silent cervical cancer threat looms large. In Nigeria, this often-overlooked menace claims the lives of too many women. Behind the curtains of this disease is a hidden adversary; Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

According to health reports, 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.

Amazingly, with Nigerian women, an estimated 12,000 new cases and about 8,000 deaths from cervical cancer have been recorded as at 2020.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Amidst the myriad strains, certain high-risk types are linked to the development of cervical cancer. Persistent infection with these high-risk types can lead to changes in cervical cells, potentially progressing to cancer over time. The virus often establishes itself quietly, showing no immediate symptoms, making regular screenings and awareness paramount.

The primary mode of transmission is through sexual contact. Understanding safe practices, including condom usage, can reduce but eliminate the risk. HPV can also be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth, emphasizing the importance of vaccination before the onset of sexual activity.

Encompassed by this health crisis, a beacon of hope emerges – HPV vaccination. Experts unanimously agree that vaccination is a powerful weapon against the spread of HPV and consequently, cervical cancer. The vaccine, administered to young girls and boys, serves as a preventive shield, significantly reducing the risk of HPV infection.

Routine pap smear and HPV test enables early detection of cervical changes, allowing for prompt medical intervention. Promoting safe sexual practices, including the use of condoms remains crucial in reducing HPV transmission risk.

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In line with this health concern, the Federal Ministry of Health introduced the Free Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination Programme, for pre-teen girls between 9 to 14 years with a single dose. The programme is said to introduce the HPV Vaccine into its routine immunization system, aiming to reach 7.7 million girls in a vaccination drive against the virus that causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. This is the largest number in a single round of HPV vaccination in the African region.

The vaccine is being provided for free by the Federal Ministry of Health through the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners.

The First phase of the mass vaccination campaign in schools and communities is scheduled to be held for five days to be carried out during the inaugural rollout in 6 states including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The 16 states include Lagos, Nasarawa, Kano, Jigawa, Enugu, Abia, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Benue, Bauchi, Taraba, Adamawa, Kebbi, Osun and Ogun states.
The second phase of the vaccination is set to commence in May 2024 across 21 states of the Federation. The programme aims to ensure that over 16 million girls can be protected in Nigeria alone by 2025.

Following UN reports, vaccination sites have been established in all 4,163 wards across the 16 states included in the phase one rollout to ensure no eligible girl is left behind. Further, mobile vaccination units have been set up to ensure that remote communities can access the vaccine.

Empowering parents, guardians and educators with accurate information about HPV and the vaccine, its risks, and preventive measures is vital. Community-wide awareness campaigns play a pivotal role in this regard. Health professionals emphasize the importance of education and awareness.

As Nigeria continues its fight against HPV and cervical cancer, a holistic approach remains essential. Future strategies may involve further integration of HPV vaccination into routine healthcare, intensified community engagement, and leveraging technology to broaden reach and impact.