Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Schoolgirls armed in cancer fight

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Gladstone Taylor/Photographer Tamara Amos-Williams (left), a guidance counselor at the Holy Trinity High School, encourages parents to allow their children to be vaccinated for HPV at a meeting held on the school grounds in Kingston last Thursday.

The Ministry of Health will be spending more than $100 million to roll out a national immunisation programme targeted at grade-seven girls as it ramps up its efforts to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer, which claims almost 200 lives annually.

The immunisation programme will see health officials visiting schools islandwide next month to vaccinate the girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is commonly spread through sexual contact. While it will not be mandatory at this time, parents have been advised that it is in the best interest of their daughters to be vaccinated.

"Girls in grade seven can get the vaccine free of cost at school. Immunisation cards must be brought to school on the days that vaccination sessions will be scheduled," said director of health services, planning and integration at the Ministry of Health, Dr Simone Spence.

"The World Health Organization recommends vaccination of girls ages nine to 14 years old, with two doses of HPV vaccine, as the best protection against cervical cancer. In Jamaica, the majority of girls in grade seven are 11 to 12 years old," she said.

The programme has got support from several interest groups as ministry officials and public health nurses have been hosting consultations with parents and other stakeholders.

Executive director of the Jamaica Cancer Society, Yulit Gordon, said she is pleased that such an initiative is being introduced. Her organisation sits on the steering committee responsible for the successful implementation of the HPV vaccination programme.

"With the prevalence of cervical cancer in the Jamaican population, it is crucial to have a national HPV vaccination programme to protect and prevent our young girls from getting cervical cancer in their adult lives," she said.

"I am pleased with the approach being taken to introduce the vaccine into our school community and applaud the efforts of the Ministry of Health in this regard. All stakeholders - the Medical Association of Jamaica, the PSOJ (Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica), the Jamaica Council of Churches, the JTA (Jamaica Teachers' Association), parent-teacher associations, among others - are being engaged and the communication is culturally sensitive and simple for all to understand the benefits of the programme," she explained.

 

TARGETING PRETEENS

 

The HPV vaccination pro-gramme has been implemented in several countries worldwide to mitigate against cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and penile cancer in men. The vaccine also protects against anal and throat cancer and is usually given to preteen boys and girls to protect them before they are exposed to the virus.

"Local data for Jamaica shows that every year almost 400 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and almost 200 women die of the disease, which can be prevented. Many of these cases are women in their most productive years of life - ages 45 to 64," Spence said.

Chairman of the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, Dr Wayne West, believes the initiative is a good one, given its focus, but said he hoped parents' concerns would be taken into consideration.

"They are rare, but one side effect, I gather, is early menopause. It is rare, but it is a reality," he said.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com