The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination remains the best defence against cancer of the cervix, but immunisation rates remain low in South Africa post pandemic. Cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer in women in SA.

Dr Seithati Molefi, Deputy Chief of the Right to Care health organisation, said the slow rate of HPV vaccination uptake was concerning, as most young girls and women are at risk of acquiring cervical cancer. The leading cause of cervical cancer is an infection of the cervix by the HPV through sexual contact.  

South Africa’s HPV vaccination programme, which started in 2014, targets Grade 4 girls in public schools who are at least nine years old. Vaccinating girls before their first sexual experience protects them against the sexually transmitted infection (STI) and acquiring cervical cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“It is a two-dose vaccine received six months apart. This means by the time they become sexually active, they’re already protected, and the risk is mitigated,” she said.

HPV vaccine uptake slows

Molefi said before the pandemic, the HPV vaccination rollout was promising, and there was optimism that uptake would stretch to rural areas. She said a little over 80% of the learners eligible to be vaccinated were immunised. She said there was no official data comparing HPV vaccine rates pre and post the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The slow vaccine uptake due to the hesitancy toward the COVID-19 vaccine has not assisted in increasing or encouraging women to get vaccines or mothers to let their daughters get vaccines. We are seeing many issues related to low HPV vaccine uptake because of this.”

Past and existing barriers to HPV vaccination

Molefi said misinformation and disinformation since the onset of the pandemic have left people viewing vaccines in general in a negative light. Many parents are now unwilling to get their children vaccinated.

“It is important for parents to understand what cervical cancer is, its causes, how the HPV vaccination could protect their daughter from the disease, as well as the possibly dire consequences for their daughters if they don’t have the HPV vaccination,” she said.

Molefi said Right To Care was working with the National Health Department to implement measures that encourage girls and women to get the HPV vaccine. Health-e News