Har­ness­ing the power of teenage girls

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

When you think of teenage girls, you might imag­ine com­mon stereo­types, from the “mean girl” to the sullen high school stu­dent locked in her bed­room. The re­al­ity is that teenage girls are not only some of the world’s most marginalised peo­ple; they also have vir­tu­ally un­matched po­ten­tial to help build a bet­ter fu­ture for all.

As it stands, ado­les­cent girls are rou­tinely de­nied control over their des­tinies. More than 32 mil­lion of the poor­est are cur­rently out of school. Ev­ery day, 39,000 girls un­der the age of 18 be­come some­one’s wife. For huge num­bers of girls world­wide, re­pro­duc­tive rights seem like an im­pos­si­ble dream.

This sit­u­a­tion is morally rep­re­hen­si­ble, so­cially self­de­feat­ing, and eco­nom­i­cally fool­ish. By ad­dress­ing it, we could not only pro­tect mil­lions of chil­dren; we could also tackle some of the great­est chal­lenges fac­ing the world today.

Con­sider the chal­lenge posed by rapid pop­u­la­tion growth. Though pop­u­la­tion size seems to be lev­el­ing off in most parts of the world, it con­tin­ues to rise fast in some re­gions, par­tic­u­larly those where girls face the high­est bar­ri­ers to suc­cess. In Africa, the pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to dou­ble by 2050 and quadru­ple by 2100.

If teenage girls were given the knowl­edge, skills, and tools to avoid un­wanted preg­nancy and take control of their own fu­tures, fer­til­ity rates would drop sub­stan­tially. These newly em­pow­ered and ed­u­cated girls could then be­come agents for broader pos­i­tive change within their com­mu­ni­ties.

Pro­tect­ing the world’s young girls is a tall or­der. But coun­tries world­wide have pledged, through the am­bi­tious Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), to ful­fill it by 2030, in­clud­ing by end­ing child mar­riage and en­sur­ing that all girls are in school. But if coun­tries are to suc­ceed in pro­tect­ing and em­pow­er­ing girls, they must also em­brace the prom­ise of a key ini­tia­tive: to ex­pand ac­cess to the vac­cine for hu­man pa­pil­lo­mavirus, which causes the vast ma­jor­ity of cer­vi­cal can­cer cases.

A rel­a­tively new de­vel­op­ment, the HPV vac­cine is most ef­fec­tive on nine- to 13-year-old girls who have not yet been ex­posed to the virus, mean­ing that they have never been sex­u­ally ac­tive. This age re­quire­ment dif­fer­en­ti­ates the HPV vac­cine from most other child­hood vac­cines, which are mainly ad­min­is­tered to in­fants.

At first glance, this might seem like a se­ri­ous dis­ad­van­tage, be­cause the HPV vac­cine can­not sim­ply be in­cor­po­rated into other vac­cine ini­tia­tives. In fact, the age re­quire­ment pro­vides an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity to reach ado­les­cent girls with other vi­tal health ser­vices, such as re­pro­duc­tive ed­u­ca­tion, men­strual hy­giene, de­worm­ing, nu­tri­tion checks, vi­ta­min shots, and gen­eral check-ups.

En­cour­ag­ingly, de­vel­op­ing-coun­try governments have in­creas­ingly been de­mand­ing the HPV vac­cine. This makes sense: of the 266,000 women who die from cer­vi­cal can­cer ev­ery year – an av­er­age of one ev­ery two min­utes – 85% are in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. If left unchecked, that fig­ure is ex­pected to rise to 416,000 by 2035, over­tak­ing ma­ter­nal deaths. For many of these coun­tries, the HPV vac­cine is not just an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion, one that pre­vents 1,500 deaths per 100,000 vac­ci­nated; it is of­ten the only so­lu­tion, be­cause the poor­est coun­tries lack the ca­pac­ity to of­fer screen­ing or treat­ment for cer­vi­cal can­cer. This is one rea­son why can­cer ex­perts, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, pri­vate-sec­tor lead­ers, and civil so­ci­ety rep­re­sen­ta­tives met a few weeks ago in Ad­dis Ababa for the tenth Stop Cer­vi­cal, Breast and Prostate Can­cer in Africa con­fer­ence.

There is more good news: the foun­da­tions of an HPV-vac­cine ini­tia­tive have al­ready been laid. In 2013, well be­fore the SDGs were agreed, Gavi, the Vac­cine Al­liance, for which I serve as Board Chair, took steps to make the HPV vac­cine avail­able and affordable in poor coun­tries. Since then, we have seen 23 coun­tries in­tro­duce the vac­cine through demon­stra­tion pi­lot projects, with five more set to fol­low.

But there are sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges ahead. While the fo­cus on hold­ing vac­ci­na­tion ses­sions in schools has proved suc­cess­ful, it is in­ad­e­quate for reach­ing girls in coun­tries with low schoolat­ten­dance rates, es­pe­cially in ur­ban ar­eas. Un­less we find a way to reach the most vul­ner­a­ble groups, no amount of po­lit­i­cal will or fi­nanc­ing will be enough to achieve the SDGs to pro­tect women and girls.

We do have some ideas for reach­ing girls who are not in school – be­gin­ning with com­mu­nity health cen­ters. As it stands, women are most likely to go to a com­mu­nity health cen­ter when they are preg­nant, or to have their in­fants vac­ci­nated. But by en­gag­ing with com­mu­nity lead­ers and par­ents to raise aware­ness of cer­vi­cal-can­cer pre­ven­tion and ad­dress other lo­cal health con­cerns, we are find­ing that it is pos­si­ble to gen­er­ate de­mand and achieve good turnout at these cen­ters. En­sur­ing that all girls have ac­cess to the HPV vac­cine would im­prove count­less lives, not only by re­duc­ing rates of cer­vi­cal can­cer, but also by en­abling the pro­vi­sion of nu­mer­ous other crit­i­cal ser­vices. It is an op­por­tu­nity that should be on the minds of can­cer ex­perts, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the pri­vate sec­tor and civil so­ci­ety. And it is an im­per­a­tive for all of the 193 governments that have signed up to the SDGs. We must not let our girls down.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.