Protecting women in Solomon Islands from cervical cancer

Feature story

WHO/Y. Shimizu

Laura Teika is a young woman with big dreams. The 15-year-old Solomon Islander plans to study hard so she can go to university to become a meteorologist.

In the meantime, she explains, there are many barriers for girls her age to reach their goals. “Young people face a lot of peer pressure. There are problems with drugs and with teenagers getting pregnant,” she says.

In Solomon Islands, another threat to the futures of women like Laura is cervical cancer. Globally, cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women. While the disease is the fourth most frequent cancer in women in the world, it is even more in Solomon Islands. However, cervical cancer screening is limited, only about 4% of women have received a Pap test and low laboratory capacity means that the tests must be sent overseas for analysis. Options for treatment and management of cervical cancer are similarly slim.

That’s why Solomon Islands, with support from WHO, UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is focusing on prevention of cervical cancer using the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to protect girls aged 9-14 years old against the disease.

The pilot was rolled out in two provinces in Solomon Islands. In a country with many extremely remote villages, reaching the target populations is challenging. However, the partners were able to vaccinate 72% of girls in the target age group in Honiara City, while 91% of girls in Isabel Province were vaccinated.

Part of this success was due to the strong links with the communities. The team from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, WHO, and UNICEF worked closely with provincial health workers, school teachers and community leaders to share information about the HPV vaccine for young women.

“I got the first dose of the vaccine at school, and then my mum took me to the clinic for the second dose,” says Laura. “The nurses and my teachers explained that the injection can prevent cancer, so we knew it was very important.”

Preparations are now under way to roll out the HPV vaccine across the rest of the country in 2019.

The HPV vaccine does not eliminate the need for continuing screening and better treatment of cervical cancer in Solomon Islands, but it is a significant step towards protecting women.

“I think it’s a really good thing that we have this vaccine,” says Laura. “It will protect my generation from cervical cancer.”

If Laura is anything to go by, her generation is aiming for big things. “I am trying my best to look after my health,” she says. “If I can do this, I know that I will have a bright future.”