“Not my daughter” – Indian Moms opt for HPV Vaccination

India experiences almost 100,000 cervical cancer cases each year and 60% of women die of it, despite it being a preventable and treatable disease.

“Not my daughter” – Indian Moms opt for HPV Vaccination
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine can save lives.

By Sutapa Biswas,

Saswati, Sangeeta and Savitha live in different parts of India, have different backgrounds, levels of education and understanding about health and cancer. They have not met each other but remain connected by their common decision to vaccinate their daughters against cervical cancer – defying social stigmas and taboo. India experiences almost 100,000 cervical cancer cases each year and 60% of women die of it, despite it being a preventable and treatable disease. But how many are engaged with and seeking to learn about the cancer figures like they are with covid data?

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine can save lives. Over the years, scientists have proven the efficacy of administering HPV vaccines to adolescents (9-14 years) that later protect adult women from cervical cancer caused by high-risk Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) strains. Yet so many girls are missing out as HPV vaccine is not yet accessible to the greater mass under the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) which currently provides vaccination for 0-5 years’ old’s against 12 viral diseases.

‘A mother knows best’

When it comes to health, how does a mother decide what’s best for her child? Both Saswati and Sangeeta have had a tryst with cancer. They came out empowered and decided to protect their daughters against cervical cancer, the second-most common cancer in Indian women. Saswati has taken the decision to vaccinate her 11-year-old daughter against vaccine-preventable diseases by herself, since she lost her husband to cancer 12 years ago.

“No one among my friends or colleagues talk about HPV vaccination or cervical cancer. In fact, my mother who is a retired nurse, said that once I am done with the 0-5 schedule my daughter is sorted for life. But here’s a vaccine that needs to be taken in adolescence to prevent a cancer. We have a lot of work to do,” says Saswati while reminiscing and pleading for increased prevention and early diagnostic services for cervical cancer.

Sangeeta won the battle against cervical cancer and pledged to live life to the fullest with her doting teenage daughter, by deciding to vaccinate her daughter. Recollecting her own ordeal while battling cancer, Sangeeta says, “When I was going through my treatment for cervical cancer, I heard a lot and read a lot. That is when I discovered that my daughters could get a vaccine and be protected from the viral infection that causes cervical cancer. I didn’t have it in my time, but my daughters have.” Covid-19 is changing how we view vaccine-preventable diseases, including cervical cancer ‘Adult-vaccine’ has found a new definition through the covid-19 pandemic, as nations
direct energies to find preventive solutions to the disease.

Contrarily, HPV vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer, and has been thoroughly clinically tested for efficacy, has not gained much momentum despite higher propensity for causing disability over the lifetime and early deaths, compared to covid-19. HPV vaccine protects best when given to girls between 9-14 years. So timing is everything. Mothers cannot possibly afford to wait and watch while their daughters go past the ‘right’ age when they could get the maximum protection. Cervical cancer can affect anyone, impairing sexual health and causing reproductive impairments and general well-being. It makes more sense therefore to vaccinate daughters and keep them protected for life.

The time is now

The World Health Organization Member States adopted the Global Strategy for Accelerating the Elimination of Cervical Cancer and announced the strategy on November 17, 2020. We are about to complete one year of the call and there is no better time to focus hard on cervical cancer elimination in India. This adoption sends a strong signal of worldwide interest in addressing this important public health issue despite the covid-19 pandemic.

Savitha, an engineer and an entrepreneur, stresses on the opportunity to turn the tide at this juncture, saying, “You get a lot of mixed information! As my kids were growing old, I wanted to take a decision at the right time on HPV vaccination. My daughter in fact said mom it’s a no-brainer, if it protects against a disease in the future, I must go for it. As global evidence proves its safety and efficacy, HPV vaccination should become more common in India. All daughters of the country can be routinely protected like my daughter – mothers must say yes!”

When each mother chooses to vaccinate her daughter, India too will be on its way to cervical cancer elimination. These Indian moms chose HPV vaccines for their daughters, so that they do not go unprotected. They got informed and took action for themselves, setting an example for the generation to come.

(The author is Co-Founder and Executive Director, CANCER FOUNDATION OF INDIA, an NGO engaged in cervical cancer prevention in India. Sutapa is an advocate of HPV vaccine in India for over 15 years. The article is for informational purposes only. Please consult medical experts and health professionals before starting any therapy, medication and/or remedy. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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