Nigeria Vaccinates 7.7 Million Girls Against HPV, Leading Cause of Cervical Cancer
Two girls sit together after receiving their HPV vaccinations at their primary school in Masaka, Rwanda. Young girls who receive HPV vaccines can hope for a future free of cervical cancer. / Credit: UNICEF

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country has introduced the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine into its routine immunization system, aiming to reach 7.7 million girls – in the continent’s largest-ever vaccination drive against the virus that causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. 

Girls aged 9–14 years will receive a single dose of the vaccine, which is highly effective in preventing infection with HPV types 16 and 18 that cause at least 70% of cervical cancers,  WHO and Nigerian health ministry officials announced on Tuesday. 

Africa is one of the regions with the largest burden of cervical cancer deaths, due to a dearth of prevention, screening and treatment services.

In 2020 – the latest year for which data is available – Nigeria recorded 12,000 new cervical cancer cases and 8,000 deaths, making it the third most common cancer and the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths among women aged between 15 and 44 years.

“The loss of about 8,000 Nigerian women yearly from a disease that is preventable is completely unacceptable,” said Muhammad Ali Pate, the Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare. 

“Cervical cancer is mostly caused by HPV, and parents can avoid physical and financial pain by protecting their children with a single dose of the vaccine. 

In November 2020, the WHO launched the “90/70/90” global initiative to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem. The strategy aims to vaccinate at least 90% of girls against HPV by the age of 15 years; screen 70% of women by age 35; and treat at least 90% of identified precancerous lesions and invasive cancers. 

Still, nearly half of LMICs have been unable to introduce HPV vaccinations, as many countries cannot still afford the vaccine at the $4,50 per dose procurement price negotiated by global health agencies, according to a 2023 article in BMC Public Health. 

Rwanda was the first sub-Saharan African country to introduce HPV vaccination in 2011. Uptake since has been slow with only a few other African countries integrating the vaccine into their routine basket of services, peaking in 2019 with six new countries: The Gambia, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia.  

UNICEF has recently launched a major initiative to bolster HPV immunization. In 2023, the agency is supplying some 36 million vaccine doses to 52 low- and middle-income countries worldwide. Some two dozen African countries have received some form of support for HPV vaccinations, whether or not they are yet integrated into the routine basket of immunizations. 

Image Credits: UNICEF.

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