Eliminating cervical cancer
Today, we have the real opportunity, know-how and ability to save tens of millions of lives from cervical cancer - one of the most highly preventable and curable forms of cancer.
Yet the reality is that a woman is more likely to die from cervical cancer simply because of her economic status and where she lives. Effective cervical cancer prevention, screening and management are available, but not to all.
We can no longer ignore cervical cancer as a global health issue nor can we continue to overlook the unnecessary deaths that arise from socioeconomic disparities and stigma. To tolerate these systemic inequities would be one of the most grievous offences against the fundamental rights of all girls and women.
No woman should die from cervical cancer. Ever.
"A disease that now stands as one of the world's greatest public health failures can be eliminated."
Global strategy towards eliminating cervical cancer as a public health problem
World Health Organization
By eliminating cervical cancer, we will save at least 62 million lives and avoid a 72 million cases among countries most affected by the disease over the course of the next century*. Meaning economies, communities and families will no longer be held back, but will have the chance to thrive.
All women - no matter where they live, their income, their race, or their level of education - will be given the opportunity to lead healthier lives and rise to their potential.
With the global commitment made in 2020, world leaders have set us on a path to elimination. However, this audacious vision cannot be achieved by half-measures. Today, we need the full commitment to national action and success.
There is a way. Now, we rely on the will of governments, communities and individuals to seize this chance and change the course of history.
Together, let’s make history by making cervical cancer history.
What’s at stake: a disease driven by inequities
Around the world, a woman dies from cervical cancer every two minutes. Without action, cervical cancer deaths will almost certainly rise a further 50% by 2030.
Nine out of 10 deaths occur in low and lower-middle-income countries.
While in contrast, early detection and timely treatment prevents up to 80% of cervical cancers in high income countries, where girls have the opportunity to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) and women are screened regularly (with treatment of pre-cancers found) – two important preventive measures of cervical cancer.
Limited access to prevention and early detection presents a major challenge in low- to middle-income countries. However, even with screening programmes in place, 55% of low-income countries lack access to radiotherapy and surgery services, which are critical in treating treat cervical cancer*.
Clear inequities also exist within countries. Persisting across income levels, inequities are driven by gender discrimination and poverty. In addition, women and girls living in hard to reach areas, refugees, migrants, indigenous populations and other vulnerable groups also sustain the injustice of limited or no access to healthcare services.
We must ensure the same lifesaving services are available to all girls and women, equally.
- Nearly 600,000 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed every year
- Every one minute, a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer
- Devastatingly, over 300,000 women each year die from cervical cancer
- Globally, every two minutes, a woman dies from cervical cancer
- Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in over 40 countries
- Around 90% of all cervical cancer deaths occur in low- to middle-income countries
An opportunity for all governments
A global commitment to eliminate cervical cancer has been made by world leaders. To fulfil this promise, international and local leaders must accelerate action to achieve national elimination.
Reaching and sustaining the goal of elimination has wide-reaching impact. By addressing cervical cancer, countries also address critical issues of:
- Gender inequality
- Universal health coverage, including providing financial risk protection as well as universal access to essential healthcare services.
A chance for everyone
To help eliminate cervical cancer, we need action by everyone, including community, business and religious leaders, healthcare professionals, teachers, education providers, families and individuals.
- Get informed: Knowing more about cervical cancer – its risk factors, signs and symptoms and common misconceptions – can empower you and your family to prevent and detect it early. And by learning more about your own country’s response to cervical cancer and the cervical cancer health services available to women and girls in your country, you can better campaign to eliminate cervical cancer.
- Act: Encourage prevention, screening and treatment among women and girls in your family and community, talk to your healthcare provider, attend cervical cancer screenings, and if appropriate, get vaccinated.
- Campaign: Contact your local government leaders and petition for accelerated action in your country, raise awareness among your community and social media networks, fundraise and donate to your national or local cervical cancer organisation or group.
Find out more about cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cervix – the narrow, lower end of the uterus (womb), forming the opening from the uterus to the vagina. The vast majority of cervical cancer cases is caused by different types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is thought to cause the cervical cells to grow uncontrollably and develop into cancerous cells.
HPV is a group of viruses which have more than 100 types. Most of them are harmless, however at least 14 types are known to be cancer-causing, including types 16 and 18 which causes 70% of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions.
Evidence also links HPV with cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis and oropharynx.
HPV is a very common virus. It is transmitted through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. Both men and women can be infected by HPV.
In most cases, HPV infection is harmless, shows no symptoms and will pass without the need for intervention. However, in rare cases the infection can persist and may progress to cancer.
Additional risk factors include
- Smoking: women who smoke have double the likelihood of developing cervical cancer
- A weakened immune system: women who have a compromised immune system, including those living with HIV, are more likely to have persistent HPV infections and a more rapid progression to pre-cancer and cancer.
- Having more than five children, or having them at an early age (under 17 years of age)
Cervical cancer in its early stages may not offer any signs or symptoms. However, a healthcare professional should be consulted if any of the following signs or symptoms are present and persistent:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding after sex, between period cycles and/or post-menopause
- Unusual pain or discomfort during sex
- Severer vaginal discharge that is bloody, watery with an unpleasant odour
- Lower back and/or pelvic pain
Achieving elimination within generations
In 2020, the World Health Organization approved a strategy aimed at eliminating cervical cancer worldwide and within generations.
No one intervention alone will be enough. The strategy requires accelerated action in prevention, screening and cancer management.
What does “elimination” mean?
Cervical cancer would no longer be considered to be a public health problem when all countries reach an annual incidence rate of 4 cases of cervical cancer per 100,000 women or less*.
The global targets (90:70:90)
The strategy sets out three targets to be achieved by all countries by 2030:
- 90% coverage of HPV vaccination of girls (by 15 years of age)
- 70% coverage of screening with a high-performance HPV test (between the ages of 35 and 45 years) and 90% treatment of precancerous lesions
- Management of 90% of invasive cancer cases*.
There is still much progress to be made to achieve these global targets. Currently, only 3% of countries globally have achieved 90% coverage of HPV Vaccination, while 12% of countries have achieved 70% screening coverage**. However, with commitment and accelerated action, this ambition can be achieved within the next decade.
Dispelling common misconceptions
HPV vaccines are not a vaccination against cervical cancer, nor can it treat or cure cervical cancer. What it does is protect against HPV, reducing the risk of being infected by HPV – one of the major causes of cervical cancer.
Some countries have started to vaccinate boys as the vaccination prevents genital cancers in males as well as females. However, the World Health Organization recommends prioritising vaccination for girls aged between 9 and 14 years, as this is the most cost-effective public health measure against cervical cancer.
HPV vaccination does not replace cervical cancer screening. Screening helps to detect changes and abnormalities in the cervix cells which may lead to cervical cancer.
There are many treatment options for cervical cancer, including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Treatment can be highly effective especially when cervical cancer is caught early.
HIV and HPV are not the same virus. However, HIV and cervical cancer are strongly inter-linked. Women with HIV are up to five times more likely to develop cervical cancer – and more likely to develop it at a younger age.
Studies on HPV vaccines have shown them to be “extremely safe”, to work and to offer long lasting protection. They are no available evidence or data that links HPV vaccines to infertility or any other serious adverse reactions.
Women of a particular race or ethnicity do not have a higher or lower risk of developing cervical cancer. However, disparities and inequities in accessing prevention and appropriate treatment may lead to a greater prevalence of, and mortality from cervical cancer in a particular racial group.
Both men and women can be infected by HPV. As men are carriers of HPV, they have an important role in prevention, and an even more critical role in cultures and countries where they have strong influence in the decision-making around their partner’s health, including offering financial support and encouraging partners to get screened or seek treatment.
How the world is eliminating cervical cancer on World Cancer Day