A simple message for women in Tanzania: Get checked for cervical cancer

Short messages using mobile technology help raise awareness and increase early detection 

In the small village of Pasiasi, in a remote region of Tanzania, a woman named Happiness Modesti is forever grateful to the Tanzania Youth Alliance (TAYOA) for making her aware of cervical cancer and the importance of screening for the disease – all through mobile technology.

Women in Tanzania leaving a clinic after receiving cervical cancer screenings. (Source: Bristol-Myers Squibb)

Tanzanian women leaving a clinic after receiving cervical cancer screenings. (Source: Bristol-Myers Squibb)

TAYOA, in collaboration with the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and several public and private partners, has used a short text messaging service (SMS) that notifies Happiness and 40,000 other women in the Mwanza Region about where and when to go for cervical cancer screenings; the system also sends them updates on their medical status.

“I have peace of mind now because I have been screened for pre-cervical cancer lesions and I know my status for HIV,” she says, and that frees her from worry and allows her to focus on caring for her HIV-positive daughter and her other five children.

Funding for the programs, SMS content and a toll-free helpline, as well as other cervical cancer outreach activities including training helpline counselors and transportation to screenings, came from an extension grant through the Foundation’s Secure the Future® initiative in sub-Saharan Africa. Secure the Future is supporting TAYOA’s efforts to increase access to cervical cancer information and services in Mwanza Region. The Foundation’s initial grant to TAYOA in 2013 was part of the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon partnership to begin work on increasing access to cervical cancer screening and cryotherapy.

Raising awareness about cervical and breast cancers and increasing access to screening is a priority for Secure the Future. Like TAYOA, some Foundation partners also are receiving support from Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a global partnership that includes the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, George W. Bush Institute, UNAIDS, USAIDS and Komen for the Cure.

According to leading public health experts, cervical cancer is about five times more common among women living with HIV than those who are not affected. Vast improvements to the health care infrastructure throughout sub-Saharan Africa have helped women infected with the disease live longer and healthier lives. However, they are now more likely to die from cervical or breast cancer than they are from HIV, and lack of awareness and access to screening are often to blame.

To help address those issues, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon are supporting numerous projects, many of them in Tanzania, where cervical cancer is the leading cause of death. For example, Medical Women Association of Tanzania (MEWATA) received funding through Secure the Future to expand its successful breast and cervical cancer awareness and screening program services.  MEWATA used prior Secure the Future grants to conduct mass screening campaigns in eight regions of Tanzania, screening 65,000 women for breast cancer and more than 4,500 for cervical cancer. Most of the program was conducted in the Mwanza region, in close collaboration with Bugando Medical Center, which serves as the hub hospital and trains other facilities on cancer screening services. MEWATA will build on that program, establishing treatment hubs in four of the eight regions and mobilizing resources to advocate for women’s health services among policy makers.

Improving and expanding integrated cervical and breast cancer awareness while strengthening regional health referral systems should improve accessibility and quality of health care systems in Tanzania. That’s the goal of CUAMM, an organization that has been active in Tanzania since 1968. With funding through Secure the Future, CUAMM is focusing on strengthening breast and cervical screening and treatment in Kilosa district while introducing diabetes screening and follow-up with patients diagnosed with HIV.  To date, 802 women have been screened and 22 have been referred to care.

Also in Tanzania, Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences (CUHAS) is reaching elderly women in rural areas who may be faced with the dual burden of HIV and cancer. A Secure the Future grant will support a project to design and implement a surveillance program to measure the incidence of HIV and cervical cancer co-infection and to inform community and government leaders on how to reduce this dual burden and mobilize resources at all levels. CUHAS will collaborate with MEWATA to provide cervical cancer screening and treatment for women in Shinyanga.

In Swaziland, which has the highest HIV prevalence in the world, Forum for African Women Educationalists Swaziland Chapter (FAWESWA) is focusing on educating adolescent girls and young women about female cancers while also raising awareness and about HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and sexually transmitted infections. Cervical cancer, closely associated with HIV, has been diagnosed in many young women in Swaziland, most of the time at a late stage when treatment is difficult. With funding from Secure the Future, FAWESWA is raising awareness of HIV, TB, sexually transmitted infections and female cancers at 15 schools in Swaziland to help reduce the incidence of those diseases and to give adolescent girls information to share with their households. The program aims to reach more than 17,000 girls and young women with HIV, TB and cervical cancer education over the next two years.

As the scope of programs to address breast and cervical cancer continues to expand throughout Africa, women like Happiness Modesti will become more aware of screening and treatment, and attitudes about female cancers will begin to change.

“I am not even sure if the services were there because we never talked about it,” she says. “But now, everyone has heard about it, we all talk about it and many women here have gone for cervical cancer screenings.”