Rwanda Battling Cervical Cancer, Giving Women Hope

Seraphine Mukandutiye, 50, is a Rwandan woman with a beautiful and glowing smile. But beneath her soft heart and a warm smile, lies a deadly monster waiting to strike. She is battling a cervical cancer.

The preventable cancer results from a genital infection caused by a Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Mukandutiye knows this is what will take her last her last breath. Every day, her family praises God for giving her an extra day.

Unfortunately, Mukandutiye is not the only woman experiencing the misery. Hundreds of other Rwandan women across the country are suffering from the silent killer. Hundreds of others are already dead.

The government says there is no specific research yet, but local hospitals say the cancer is one of the major killers among women.

Since 2011, 986 women have been diagnosed with the cancer, including Mukandutiye. Unfortunately 678 (almost 70%) have passed away.

The high death rate raised a serious concern in the country, forcing the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, to champion a national wide testing and immunization campaign.

Dr. Maurice Gatera, the Director of Vaccine Programs at Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) says the cancer can be prevented.

Half a million women, of which 97% are school-going girls, have since then been administered with “Cervarix” vaccine, an immunization against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

Dr. Gatera says more than 150.000 girls will receive the vaccine before end of 2014.

Rwanda is the first and only African country rolling out a free vaccination and screening with funding from Merck, an American pharmaceutical company, Qiagen N.V, a Dutch pharmaceutical research company, World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

With the support from the partners, Rwanda is the first and only African country rolling out a free vaccination and screening.

Kethia Mutesi, a 15-year-old senior four high school science student at Lycee De Kigali, is one of the thousands of Rwandan girls who have taken the Cervarix shot. “I didn’t know it was a prevention against that cancer,” she says. “Thank God, I won’t have the cancer.”

At least 2.72 million more school-going girls between the age of 11 and 15 are expected to be vaccinated by 2015, the government says.

And women aged between 35 and 45 who test positive will receive free treatment. Mukandutiye is one of the patients under this program.

However, Mukandutiye’s husband, Viateur Gafaranga knows his wife cannot recover from the cancer, but he has ensured all his four daughters are vaccinated.

As the First Lady pushes her campaign, majority of women, be it from rural or urban, desperately need more awareness.

Jessica Karera, a civil engineer with Davis & Shirtiliff, a Water Treatment and Swimming Pool Products manufacturer, lives in Kigali City. She says “if a fellow lady [asked] about that cancer, I wouldn’t avail much information.” “I don’t think it’s about being educated or not, but rather how much such information is availed to you.”

In Karera’s view, many women may have heard about cervical cancer “but most of us haven’t gone for a test.” She insists the Ministry of Health should increase awareness campaigns.

Meanwhile, heath centers in rural areas are not fully equipped with the right equipment to conduct the testing. Health Workers say sometimes they rely on ‘guess work’. Unless a patient is diagnosed with severe infections, it is difficult to determine they have cancer.

However, upon suspicion, samples are sent to a nearby referral hospital, where the testing is conducted. Each of the five provinces of Rwanda including Kigali City has at least two referral hospitals. Over 40 specialized facilities have been equipped with facilities to offer inpatient and outpatient treatment.

The University Teaching Hospital of Butare is the referral hospital in Southern province where Mukandutiye receives her monthly therapy.

Daphrose Munganyinka, a nurse at Kibirizi health center, Gisagara District, also in Southern Rwanda. She sends all the samples to the University Teaching Hospital of Butare, about 15km away.

“I receive a large number of patients suffering from various sexually transmitted infections,” says. Her dilemma is always the failure to recognize the nature of the diagnosed infections and the level at which the patient is suffering from cancer.

Dr. Fabrice Ndizeye of Gicumbi District, northern Rwanda had long been tormented by the silent women killer. But he is hopeful after the introduction of the vaccine, the disease will eventually deteriorate.

The WHO says an estimated 280,000 cases have been diagnosed among women each year with 80% of patients living in developing countries especially African, including Rwanda.

Health Minister, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, says the Rwanda is investing in facilities and traning more medical staff to fight the cervical cancer, and other illnesses. “The new vaccine [Cervarix] raises hope for reducing mothers’ death to zero,” the Minister says.

Meanwhile, as Mukandutiye battles the cancer, she believes it is better late than never. At least one thing she is sure of, like Mutesi, the high school student, is that her daughters will never fight the same battle.

This article was first ppublished on Aug 26, 2014