NEW YORK–To promote better health for women around the world – especially the developing world – the UN hosted a side event of the ECOSOC Commission on Population and Development themed “No woman left behind in the fight against NCDs: Towards health services that address breast and cervical cancer.” The event, which was organized by the American Cancer Society, the Forum of African First Ladies against Breast and Cervical Cancer, and PATH, took the form of a panel discussion featuring government officials, experts, and those touched by cancer in their own lives.
Madam Callista Mutharika, the First Lady of Malawi who is an active advocate of cancer awareness and research has been a strong advocate of increasing access to care among women in Africa, especially remote regions.She discussed the problems that face these women as deficiencies of information and capital. “The main challenges are a lack of education among women of our countries, a lack of resources – for example health facilities, health facilities for screening, and the actual infrastructure is not there,” the First Lady told South-South News. “With a lack of all these facilities, [fighting women’s cancer] becomes a huge challenge.”
Ambassador Brian Bowler of Malawi supported his First Lady’s comments and called the entire international community into action to take a stand against women’s non-communicable diseases. “We are losing out mothers, grandmothers, and wives…we are losing our future. Illness in women is a development issue as well as a health issue,” he said in his closing remarks on Wednesday.
Each year, about 270,000 women die from breast and cervical cancer. This grim number is made more tragic by the preventable nature of these deaths. 88% of women who die from these diseases come from the developing world. In every country in the Caribbean except Haiti, non-communicable diseases claim more women’s lives each year than complications that result from pregnancy. Sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to many of the world’s poorest nations, has a higher rate of breast cancer than any other region in the world.
Facts like these can be daunting. Still, some trends in recent years have experts optimistic that the spread of non-communicable diseases in women can be controlled and ultimately stopped. More and more organizations, like those responsible for this event, are raising both awareness and capital to fight this problem. A vaccine for human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, was introduced in 2006 in wealthy nations, and its price has dropped precipitously since then. In 2008, one dosage of the vaccine costs $100.56; today it costs less than $15. Some experts project that in coming years this figure could sink as low as 20 to 30 cents.
New inexpensive techniques for diagnosis are also being used with greater frequency in developing nations than ever before. Given these strides, and continued careful attention, the rates of non-communicable diseases among women in developing countries can be significantly reduced, mirroring those in wealthier nations.
One speaker at Wednesday’s panel who serves as living proof of these positive trends is Clover Allen Wilson, a Jamaican woman who survived two bouts with breast cancer – and the harrowing treatment that accompanied it. She told her story as one of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, but also of triumph and redemption. “Cancer has stolen my pride and my dignity,” she told the crowded audience, “but not my hope.” Wilson’s inspirational testimony reminded those present that, just as cancer patients find the courage to endure unconscionable hardships, so too can those who sometimes feel overwhelmed in the battle against cancer around the world.