THE Zimbabwe Association of Church Related Hospitals (ZACH) has warned that women living with HIV were more prone to cervical cancer and therefore should get screened more frequently.
By Patricia Mashiri
Speaking during Cervical cancer and HIV and the impact of COVID-19 on screening services virtual meeting, HIV Positive Women Urged To Regularly Screen For Cervical Cancer, Dr Onai Diura-Vere ZACH Technical Advisor said,”85 percent of women with cervical and HIV live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Women with HIV are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer compared with HIV negative women.
HIV positive women are six times more likely to develop cervical cancer than women without HIV. Once pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions are present on the cervix of a woman with HIV, the disease progresses twice the rate of standard non-HIV cases.”
Dr Vera added that there is increased risk of acquiring human papilloma virus infection (HPV) in women with HIV than any other populations and the suppressed immune system of an HIV+ woman is ill-equipped to fight off the HPV infection that causes the majority of cervical cancer cases hence more rapid progression to cancer, lower chances of regression of pre-cancer lesions and higher rates of recurrence following treatment.
Dr Vera also said COVID-19 has disrupted progress they had made in cervical cancer screening following the total shutdown of all services with the exception of critical healthcare and security services.
“Client factors also contributed to reduced utilisation of services. Individuals who are well may not visit health facilities for fear of contracting COVID-19. An unpublished survey conducted by the risk communication and community engagement pillar noted fear of contracting the disease, fear of being stigmatised as COVID-19 cases and other fears emanating from lack of knowledge as barriers to utilisation,” Dr Vera said.
Meanwhile, Ottilia Makoto, the Provincial HIV Care and Treatment Coordinator for ZACH said there were many barriers which limited cervical cancer screening which needed to e addressed.
“These barriers include limited knowledge on cervical cancer screening services, limited access to screening services (not all facilities offer VIAC services), most centers have limited staff trained on cervical cancer screening and high staff attrition at some sites. There is also staff shortages resulting in prioritizing services and closure of VIAC departments ,lack of facilities and space at some sites and outreach points that allows for required privacy during screening among others,” Makoto said.
She added that there was need to Increase HPV vaccination coverage, increase advocacy and awareness on cervical cancer prevention strategies and to make VIAC services to be available at equal opportunity to all women.
Lovemore Makurirofa, the Information Research and Evaluation Officer at the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe said they had decentralized cervical cancer screening to rural areas through their organization.
“We are happy that the pilot test by the Ministry of Health and Child Care of vaccinations which targeted 9-13 years was a success. We are also offering VIAC screening services,” Makurirofa said.