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That First Lady’s fight in Namibia

Dame Patience Jonathan was in Namibia in July. There are reasons this writer takes note of it. She had followed in the footsteps of President Goodluck Jonathan who was in that same country earlier this year. Nigerians shouldn’t forget that, on that occasion, Namibians had honoured their leader with the highest national award in their behalf, in the process thanking Nigerians for their assistance in the course of Namibia’s war of independence. That’s a point once noted on this page, pointing out then that compared to other people from that part of the continent which enjoyed the same assistance from Nigeria, Namibians stand apart; they are a grateful people. So, just as one had stated then, and because every act of gratitude deserves another round of assistance if it’s needed, it’s repeated here that Nigeria should continue to stand by Namibians anytime, anywhere. For this reason, when Nigeria’s First Lady travelled to Windhoek to attend the 8th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostrate Cancer in Africa programme with the theme, “Universal Access to Cervical Cancer Prevention”, it immediately caught this writer’s attention. The fight which the President’s wife took to that country wasn’t the first. She had been to other African countries too, and on some other occasions had sent gifts from Nigerians to nations where there were displaced people such as the Saharawi Republic in the North-West of the continent. This time though, it was for the cause of women suffering from cervical cancer that she had headed South-West. But there are more reasons for being interested in such an endeavour.

Africa is one place where the helpless and the voiceless are in the majority, meanwhile, it’s the vociferous few that make the louder noise, often not about issues that affect the voiceless majority. In Sudan’s Darfur, women and children die under Khartoum’s relentless assault and the main news pages where this tends to come into focus are those of the Western world, their radio as well as their TVs. In Central African Republic, years of misrule have turned Muslims and Christians who have lived together for years into enemies; now they maim and kill one another, with no one hearing about it except for the few occasions when Western media happened to pick the more heinous acts of bloodshed and report them. Those are a few of the man-made problems, the outcome of lack of quality governance. There are the challenges that man has little control over; those are many, and are generally pushed to the background especially in the face of more shocking human miseries. In the face of this, something still has to be said and done for victims of other problems that silently trouble Africans, not a few of which involve women. Cervical cancer is one of such. One more reason what took place in Namibia is of interest is that finding relevant voices on the continent that voluntarily speak for the voiceless doesn’t always happen. So when wives of Africa’s leaders put heads together to speak up on an issue, any issue at all, it’s worth pointing to. More so, this is one continent where the challenges are so overwhelming that governments can’t pay needed attention to all. In that case, whatever helping hand any group offers should, for the sake of the beneficiaries, be placed in its proper perspective and made the most of.

According to the WHO, in 2008, there were more than 530, 000 new cases of cervical cancer worldwide and 275,000 deaths resulting from the same. Over 90 per cent of them were recorded in developing countries among which is Nigeria. In the African region alone, 75,000 new cases were recorded in the same year while 50,000 women died of the disease. Cervical cancer occurs when the cells in the cervix begin to grow and replicate in an abnormal and uncontrolled way. When this happens, the body cannot organise these cells for normal function and the cells form a mass that is called a tumour. Malignant tumours in the cervix can spread to other parts of the body, crowding and destroying normal cells.

Cervical cancer often grows very slowly over a period of years. Before the cancer actually develops, there are early changes that occur in the cells of the cervix. While these cells that become abnormal are not in themselves cancerous, and many women with the cells do not develop cancer, the cells may lead to cancer. The abnormal cells usually develop as a result of viral infection that is generally sexually transmitted. When women have the virus, their immune system can eliminate it. For women whose immune system does not eliminate the virus, the cells may in time develop into cervical cancer. While all women are potentially at risk of developing cervical cancer at some point in their lifetime, the most common risk factors include an early age of first intercourse, having multiple sexual partners, and having experienced a weakened immune system. Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women in their late 30s. It can, however, be diagnosed in younger as well as older women.

Where this becomes more important for Africa is that high incidences of cervical cancer are reported on the continent, at rates exceeding 50 per 100,000 populations with age-standardised mortality sometimes exceeding 40 per 100,000 populations. For example, between 1981 and 1990, data from Nairobi hospital showed that cervical cancer accounted for 70 per cent-80 per cent of all cancers of the genital tract and eight per cent-20 per cent of all cancers. In Nigeria, 17, 550 women are diagnosed yearly, and no fewer than 26 Nigerian women die daily as a result of cervical cancer. The good news is that there are measures that offer opportunities for prevention: There is the low-cost screening approaches suitable for low-resource areas and vaccines that are efficacious in preventing the infections as well as the precancerous changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Efforts are also being made from different backgrounds, and from outside the continent to see to its prevention. In 2013, it was announced that the African Collaborative Centre for Microbiome and Genomics Research at the University College Hospital in Ibadan was to receive more than $4.16 million over four years from the United States of America to fight cervical cancer.

The funds released were part of the initiatives by the US expanding its partnership with African institutions and scientists for research into some of the most vexing health problems plaguing the continent. The research in this case was to focus on the epidemiology of cervical cancer and human papillomavirus infection. As the US National Institute of Health puts it, the grant “addresses a high-impact public health challenge that affects women’s health in Africa and the rest of the world”. The US didn’t forget to remind everyone of this and related initiatives at the recently concluded US-Africa Summit where President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Commerce had announced for Africa’s leaders to hear: “Investing in Africa would support workers in California, and strengthen the health of patience in Nigeria” because of the MoU signed by Environment Chemical Corporation to “construct a state of the art cancer institute in Ibadan”.

The fight against cervical cancer is one area where groups and agencies external to the continent have been seen to be doing something vital. It was to this a few relevant voices on the continent also added their own quota in Windhoek. Out there, in the course of the programme, Nigeria’s First Lady said she and her fellow First Ladies were focusing on “universal access to cancer prevention,” adding that “girls between the ages of nine to 15 years should be immunised… and have regular cancer screening done using the affordable procedures”. So, it’s the view of this writer that sometimes such interventions from whatever corner they come from may be what that next girl or woman needs in order to survive and raise the next generation for Africa. And of course that fight in one small corner of the continent, on behalf of the womenfolk, can’t be separated from whatever progress Africa wishes to make. It’s in that light efforts such as this should be fully encouraged.


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