Guyana has a successful vaccination record, dating back to 1970, and over the years the programme has expanded; not only obtaining higher coverage for antigens, but also having a further reach across the country.
Vaccination efforts show that in the 1980s, the percentage coverage for BCG, for instance, was 68 percent. This figure climbed to 98 percent in 2016. Poliomyelitis, which is one of the diseases that causes deformity to an individual, was last seen in 1962 after the introduction of the Polio vaccine.
Having beaten poliomyelitis, Guyana moved its measles coverage from 67 percent in 1995 to 100 percent last year and, in 2016, was certified as having eliminated not only Measles but also Rubella.
“Vaccination is the number one public health success story, not only in Guyana, but worldwide,” Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Officer, Dr. Ertenisa Hamilton, recently boasted.
She is now eager for this “success story” to be repeated in the country’s combat against cervical cancer.
CERVICAL cancer is the 2nd most common cancer buffeting Guyanese women. Local figures show an average annual incidence rate of 46.9 out of every 100,000 persons in the population. Guyana has a population of some 747,000.
Two out of every three Guyanese women (or 66 percent) with cervical cancer are below the age of 60. Those between the ages of 15-39 years comprise the population with the highest risk of developing cervical cancer.
Because only four percent of all the cancers are diagnosed at stage 1, when it is much easier to treat successfully, some 27 women out of every 100,000 persons of the Guyanese population die every year from the disease, according to local figures.
The statistics also show that Afro-Guyanese women have the highest incidence rate of cancer of the cervix, with 56.1 per 100,000 affected.
Since 2012, successive Guyanese governments have taken policy positions to help stop the march of the deadly disease in the 216,000 square kilometre former British colony with the introduction of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine among the most vulnerable in four of the 10 Administrative Regions.
Under a pilot initiative between 2012 and 2014, some 6,600 girls, 11-13 years old, received the HPV vaccine, GARDASIL, to protect them against cervical cancer when they turn adults.
A combination of factors forced a premature suspension of the HPV programme in the latter half of 2014; the chief problem being a “shortfall of HPV vaccines”, according to an official Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) document.
Internally, bad press, parental scepticism, doubts among health workers, disbelief by educators, mental rejection by the Guyanese public and no strategy targeting cohorts also helped ambush the initiative.
The Guyanese government, nevertheless, reintroduced the vaccine in the last quarter of 2017, targeting 36,000 girls, Dr. Hamilton said; despite increasing misinformation that the vaccine causes paralysis, coma and infertility among other dangerous secondary burdens.
There has been no scientifically proven evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, to date, 77 countries worldwide including Canada, the USA and England have all introduced this vaccine.
The inaugural HPV campaign in Guyana contradicts the popular GARDASIL side-effects narrative, since none of the 6,600 students in the pilot programme reported negative effects of the vaccine.
GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations, is helping to back the current push by the Public Health Ministry in Guyana to protect females from developing cervical cancer by immunising girls in the 9-13 age group, with plans of expanding this also to the boys and other age cohorts.
The country’s telling vaccination accomplishments and its proclivity to attract continued strong international support is a hint that Guyana is on its way to triumphing over the HPV scourge.