When Miriam Katana lost her mother to breast cancer in 2016, she and her elder sister were advised by a doctor to go for regular screening as their family had a history of the disease.
Prior to her mother’s death, Miriam had lost an uncle to mouth cancer in 2000, an aunt to cervical cancer in 2016 and an uncle to prostate cancer two years later, in 2018. Another uncle is battling the same cancer.
Despite the family’s battle with the disease, the 36-year-old mother of two girls is yet to heed the doctor’s advice. Further calls to have her 10-year-old daughter take the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer have fallen on deaf ears.
Dr. Riaz Kasmani, an oncologist in the coastal county of Mombasa explains that cervical cancer is the leading cause of death in women in Kenya, with nine women dying of the disease every day. It is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus, a common viral infection of the reproductive tract. Although it is commonly believed that HPV affects women who are sexually active, it can affect both men and women who are not sexually active, as well as children and young people.
“If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the easier cancers to treat,” Dr. Kasmani said.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the HPV vaccination programme in 2019 targeting approximately 800,000 ten-year-old girls. However, the program is facing a low uptake of the second and third dose of the vaccine, due to a number of factors, such as lack of awareness, partner disapproval among parents and misinformation campaigns spreading through social media.
Miriam, despite having lost so many family members to cancer, is one of those who saw the misleading posts on social media.
“I have seen posts that say the vaccine is either a family planning scheme or a plan to slowly eliminate people. You never know,” she said.
Furthermore, she questioned why the vaccine is given to girls aged 10 years only yet every woman is equally exposed to the disease. ‘‘I will not allow my daughter to get the vaccine because I do not know its long-term effects”.
The misconception that HPV is only sexually transmitted through sexual contact is possibly the main reason behind the misinformation campaigns against the vaccine by various groups
One such campaign is a web archive of a post shared by Samantha Graziosi on August 8th 2019 on Facebook. The post is of an article published on Vactruth.com on June 7th 2019. The article titled ‘The Vaccine that Never Should Have Been Approved’ was authored by Michelle Goldstein.
Goldstein is a celebrity yoga instructor in America who earns a living from challenging mainstream medicine and selling alternative cures. She has no medical qualifications and her views are not backed by credible data. She runs a website and a Facebook page called Holistic Health to Go. Her article raises a number of issues faulting the HPV Vaccine Gardasil that came into the market in 2006.
It also claims that “the HPV vaccination has caused tremendous health damage for young women and men worldwide” and that “HPV vaccinations are responsible for debilitating auto-immune disorders, paralysis, cervical cancer, infertility, and death.” This is in reference to an article published on an earlier date (24 March 2016) on the same website by the same author.
The article also cites https://sanevax.org/ and https://childrenshealthdefense.org/ as some of the sources supporting her claims. However, the data sourced from sanevax.org showing “an alarming percentage increase in HPV Vaccine adverse injuries and deaths…” are data sourced from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) which contains unconfirmed reports of such events implying inaccurate data since VAERS contains reports that could have been made by anybody with whatever vested interest.
Graziosi, who shared the article on Facebook, continues to post anti-vaccine sentiments some of which link to a group of anti-vaccine proponents operating under the hashtag #HoldTheLine.
Children’s health defense on the other hand is an organization owned and run by Robert F. Kennedy Junior who is a renowned anti-vaxxer and whose claims published on the organization’s website have been debunked before. He is also listed among the disinformation dozen, a group of 12 people whom research showed were responsible for most of the Covid-19 misinformation online, in a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Children’sHealthDefense, chaired by Kennedy, is a front for anti-vaccination content and was reported by The Center for Countering Digital Hate to be making millions from its activities, including “federally backed small business loans.”
The FDA, the organization that approves drugs safety in the U.S.A, in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), reviewed all claims of the ‘danger’ posed by the HPV Vaccine Gardasil and gave the following summary: “Based on the review of available information by FDA and CDC, Gardasil continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks.”
The article by Michelle Goldstein, shared on Facebook by Samantha Graziosi is laden with hearsay, citations of unverified data and questionable sources as well as subjective sentiments hence clearly not factual.
FIVE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE HUMAN PAPILLOMA VIRUS (HPV)
#1. HPV is only transmitted through sexual contact.
Truth is while HPV is most easily transmitted through sexual contact, it can also happen if the virus comes into contact with any mucous membrane such as the lips, anus, mouth and other parts of the genitals. HPV may also be contracted through prolonged contact with infected skin such as holding hands.
#2. Only women get HPV
Truth is both men and women are exposed to the virus. HPV can also cause cancer of the penis, mouth and throat in men. Babies can also get the virus but their bodies usually clear it on their own.
#3.HPV only affects people with multiple sexual partners
Truth is people in monogamous relationships can also be affected; passing the virus from one another over a period of years. HPV can persist in your body for between 10 to 15 years; therefore, it is possible for one partner to have contacted the virus from a previous partner. Even after a long-term relationship, having a new sexual partner may expose you to the virus.
#4. HPV only leads to cervical cancer
Truth is there are more than 100 strains of the HPV virus but only two are the most commonly linked to cervical cancer; HPV16 and HPV18. Some HPV varieties cause genital warts and others can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis, mouth and throat.
#5. HPV is rare
Truth is HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. With more than 100 strains of the virus, a significant number of men and women are exposed to at least one type of HPV in their early adulthood. However, 90% of HPV infections usually clear out without any intervention within a few months to two years after transmission. This means that most people never develop symptoms or health problems, and therefore pass the virus to each other unknowingly.
The pain of cancer
“Such campaigns are spread by people who have not experienced the pain of cancer,” said Miriam Waithira, a resident of Nakuru County. The 45-year-old mother of two successfully battled cervical cancer in 2018 and does not take lightly the cruelty of the disease.
Cancer is a costly disease to treat and manage. Many people die due to lack of funds and the necessary medical equipment required in the treatment of the disease. One session of chemotherapy for example,for example costs between 25,000 to 35,000 kenya shillings ($220 – $300) per session depending on the dosage, while radiotherapy costs between Kes. 5,000 to 10,000 on dosage.
Waithira went through six rounds of chemotherapy and twenty-five sessions of radiotherapy.
“I cannot explain the pain I experienced. It is especially stressful when one cannot afford the recommended diet to help manage the disease. The government should work harder to demystify the fear and suspicion about the HPV vaccine, to prevent more women from suffering in the future.”