By Kritika Kamthan:
“Reproductive freedom is critical to a whole range of issues. If we can’t take charge of this most personal aspect of our lives, we can’t take care of anything. It should not be seen as a privilege or as a benefit, but a fundamental human right.”
~ Faye Wattleton
A mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister–a woman. The opposite sex as many term her, a woman, in her various avatars is the core of a family. We come across several discourses on women’s rights including women empowerment and gender inequality. However, rarely do we read or hear many on health for women and specifically cervical cancer–an issue which must be addressed immediately. Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of women related cancer deaths in India today (Source) In absolute numbers, India bears the highest burden of the disease in the world.
Cervical cancer is the cancer of the cervix, an organ connecting the uterus and vagina and is commonly caused by a sexually transmitted virus called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). At least half of the sexually active population contracts the infection at some point in their lives(Gynaecologic cancer, Cervical Cancer, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)). Though, most of the populace clears out the infection naturall, those who contract the higher-risk strains of HPV continue to have persistent infections which lead to the development of cervical cancer .
The disease is the second most deadly killer of women worldwide with 500,000 new cases, and 275,000 deaths annually. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Institute Catala d’Oncologia estimate that every year 130,000 Indian women (older than 15 years of age) are diagnosed with cervical cancer and approximately 74,000 die from cervical cancer (Source). Based on current projections, the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths are estimated to increase by 2025 to 203,757 and 115,171, respectively.
Despite the advent of new tools and technologies cervical cancer continues to remain a critical public health challenge in India. A majority of deaths due to cervical cancer can be attributed to issues such as low awareness levels of the disease, stigma, affordability, lack of access to screening and vaccines and lack of political will to push the disease higher up in the nation’s health agenda. However, it is vital to note here that the disease is largely preventable. If detected early, cervical cancer can be treated and the patient can lead a healthy life.
That said it is important to understand the significance of primary prevention techniques–screening and vaccination–for protection against cervical cancer. Since this is a slow growing cancer that may not exhibit any symptoms, it is important that a sexually active woman undergoes screening at least once, every two years. Regular screening ensures that a woman is guarded against the spread of the cancerous cells. Otherwise, death is imminent. There are several screening tests available in the market like Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) as well as Pap Smears and others such as HPV testing. Additionally, vaccination at an appropriate age is also essential to help prevent the disease. Ideally, the girls must be vaccinated before the onset of sexual activity. The cultural hegemon–a doctor–plays a pivotal role in providing guidance on vaccines as well as the screening procedures available.
India at the moment is balancing itself on a delicate powder keg. Although the country has made enormous strides in all spheres, women’s health and specifically, reproductive health, continues to remain neglected. The health of a woman is intrinsically linked to their status in the society(Source) . Various studies reveal that a woman’s contribution to a family is often overlooked and she is considered an economic burden. While there are exceptions, women in India face severe challenges to their health. Cervical cancer NEED NOT be one of the challenges. While on one hand, the need of the hour is a strong public information campaign to generate awareness around the disease, we as citizens can also lend a helping hand in curbing cervical cancer. As stated previously, the disease is largely preventable provided we undergo regular screenings as well as get vaccinated against the disease. If these urgent steps are not undertaken immediately, the number of deaths caused by this deadly killer will continue to gather dust in a pile of weather beaten and decaying records.