According to the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a highly prevalent sexually transmitted infection, with approximately 43 million cases reported in 2018 among individuals in their late teens and early 20s.
The World Health Organisation has found that HPV is responsible for over 95 percent of cervical cancer cases, making it the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. It is noted that the majority of sexually active individuals will contract HPV at some point in their lives, and some may experience multiple infections.
The regions with the highest prevalence of cervical HPV among women are sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (16 percent), Eastern Europe (14 percent), and South-East Asia (14 percent).
Cervical cancer ranks as the third most common form of cancer in Nigeria, and is the second highest cause of cancer-related deaths among women aged 15 to 44. In 2020 alone, there were at least 12,000 new cases and 8,000 fatalities resulting from cervical cancer in the country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also noted that the prevalence of cervical cancer in men varies significantly depending on sexual behaviors. Additionally, individuals living with HIV, men who have sex with men, those with weakened immune systems, individuals with co-infections of other sexually transmitted infections, people on immunosuppressive medications, and children who have experienced sexual abuse are at higher risk of contracting the virus.
On a global scale, it is estimated that approximately 625,600 women and 69,400 men develop HPV-related cancer each year. Cervical cancer ranks as the fourth leading cause of cancer and cancer-related deaths among women worldwide in 2020, with an estimated 604,127 new cases and 341,831 deaths. Cervical cancer accounts for 93 percent of all HPV-related cancers in women.
According to estimates, in the majority of cases (90%), HPV naturally clears up within two years without causing any health issues. However, if HPV persists, it can lead to problems such as genital warts and cancer. Genital warts typically manifest as small bumps or clusters of bumps in the genital area. They can vary in size, texture (raised or flat), or appearance (resembling cauliflower).
To address these health risks, the Federal Government has introduced the HPV vaccine into the routine immunization system. This vaccination initiative aims to reach over seven million girls, making it the largest single-round HPV vaccination effort in the African region.
The Federal Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, in collaboration with the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, is providing the HPV vaccine free of charge. Support for this initiative comes from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, and other partners.
Girls aged nine to 14 years will be given one dose of a highly effective vaccine to prevent infection from HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for at least 70% of cervical cancers. This vaccination campaign will take place over five days in schools and communities in 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
Subsequently, the vaccine will become a regular part of immunization schedules in healthcare facilities. The second phase of vaccination will commence in May 2024 in 21 states.
Despite efforts to combat the spread of HPV through vaccination and dispel misconceptions, there have been conspiracy theories circulating against the vaccine.
A popular family program host in Abuja shared a video that went viral, falsely claiming that the HPV vaccine is harmful to girls and that it is an attempt to reduce the Nigerian population.
Parents, leaders, and other individuals have expressed concerns about the safety of vaccines, including the Covid-19 vaccine, in Nigeria. In relation to the HPV vaccine, the CDC acknowledges that it can cause minor side effects like fainting, nausea, and headache, but dismisses claims of fertility problems as spread through anti-vaccine platforms. Dr. Olusina Ajidahun, CEO of Lifeboxlabs, urges people not to believe anti-vaccine theories as they pose a threat to public health.
He stated, “Various political influencers and individuals against vaccines are spreading misinformation that the government is intentionally harming our girls. This is a false claim, and it is important for people to not pay attention to them. These individuals lack understanding of how vaccines function and are solely focused on promoting an agenda that is destined to fail. If allowed to succeed, this agenda would have devastating effects on the health and well-being of millions of Nigerians.
“While it is true that we criticize the Nigerian government, it does not mean we should ignore their achievements and fail to acknowledge them. HPV vaccines have been in short supply worldwide, and this initiative by the government is something many countries would greatly appreciate.
“So, how do vaccines actually work? When vaccines are administered, they stimulate the body to produce antibodies that help fight infections when exposed to the actual disease or organism. Essentially, you do not contract the disease but are shielded from it in the future.”