By Ndidi Chukwu & Diana Edema-sillo
Wife of the Senate President and Founder of Wellbeing Foundation Africa, Mrs. Toyin Abubakar Bukola Saraki, granted an exclusive interview to Health Reporters in commemoration of International Women’s Day. She speaks on Vaccines, Routine Immunization and provision of healthcare services to women and children. Excerpt:
Globally the March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day. In Nigeria cervical cancer continue to claim the lives of women, on a very important global day like this, do you think is it time for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccine to be introduced for women?
Early detection is crucial to ending cervical cancer, if women can go for screening in time, more lives would be saved. But if we are going to wait for women to notice the symptoms themselves and speak up then something is not quite right, it will be too late. This is the reason why we have always advocated for comprehensive screening for cervical cancer. Apart from screening there is a challenge that we are yet to achieve, the universal health care. If we get universal health coverage this cervical cancer screening should be second nature to health care professionals. It is still perceived as something being discretionary or a luxury. I am really encouraged, years ago in Kwara when I was a first lady we started a cervical screening programme, and I am glad that my successor has amplified it. I am aware that Nigeria has requested for HPV vaccine, but I believe that request is probably going to take 24 months from being considered to any degree of what we need in Nigeria.
Wellbeing Foundation has lead in advocacy for the wellbeing of women and children, does it include ensuring availability of HPV vaccines to reduce deaths related to cervical cancer?
What we have done at Wellbeing Foundation, is that we have reached out to HPV Vaccine manufacturers. There are two main manufacturers and one of them is designing a road map for us to achieve universal coverage for every adolescent girl in one or two states of Nigeria. I am really excited about it, I can’t reveal the name yet, but I do believe that success is around the corner for us. What we have done in the states, is sensitization for the parents so they are going to support it. It is not just about immunization, we need to get the will and make sure that the girls are well educated.
This has been a very long journey of about eight years for us. The idea is that we are partnering with this organization to bring this vaccine affordable. But if we can pioneer to show that these vaccines can be afforded and accepted by communities then we will ensure that every adolescent girl in Kwara state is vaccinated. Each girl should have two doses and married women with one catch-up dose. The idea of an HPV vaccine is that it should be taken before the initiation of sex. The age differ from countries, but in Nigeria we are trying to catch girls from age 10 or 11. We are not saying in Kwara sexual activities start at 10, a study has proven that girls in the state get initiated to sexual activities at older age, however we have to catch them young for vaccination.
What is the effect of early marriage to HPV infections?
The retention of girls in secondary education up to tertiary education allows girls to become adults and make their own choices, when it comes to their reproductive life. This is something that will be of huge benefit to the lives of these girls and they can live their full potential in life. When girls are exposed to early marriages, often they get HPV, so that is why I’m advocating for health of women. Vaccination is all about health and it is the only way of keeping our community well.
Immunization for prevention of childhood killer diseases is also important. Also it is expected that Nigerian government would commit funds to immunization, what would be your message to the government for Routine Immunization funding against childhood preventable diseases?
Yes, there is funding challenge; we have a problem with coverage. I believe that there is no way we can separate the health of the mother from the health of the newborn, the health of the child and even family health, and other health proponents. I believe that we need to strengthen Primary Health Care and put the pyramid to the right position. Our PHC is weak; the Tertiary and Secondary Health Facilities are dealing with the issues the PHC facilities should be dealing with.
Immunization should be a right and it should be dealt with at PHC level. It is about the need to strengthen the PHCs to fulfill its basic role of keeping people well and dealing with uncomplicated ailments. If this can be done in a very innovative manner, we will be able to take care of the funding demands for Routine Immunization, I personally don’t believe we as a nation we should rely on aid, we have to be self sufficient where we will be producing these vaccines ourselves.