Cervical cancer remains a significant burden in the Philippines, with 7,897 new cases and 4,052 deaths recorded in 2020 alone. This makes it the second most common cancer among Filipino women after breast cancer.
Despite this alarming statistic, many people don’t know cervical cancer is preventable, and that there are vaccines available to help protect women against its most common cause, the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Cervical cancer starts with HPV infection of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. It is most often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact including sex, that affects both men and women.
Fortunately, vaccines have been developed to help protect against HPV, which, combined with regular screening, is considered the most effective way for women to help prevent cervical cancer. The World Health Organization recommends that girls between the ages of 9 and 14 receive HPV vaccination. Men and women who have not been vaccinated may also get the vaccine, after a discussion with their doctors.
The Philippine government has recognized the importance of HPV vaccination as a tool to help eliminate cervical cancer following the World Health Organization’s strategy. It has since launched initiatives to make the vaccine more accessible to Filipino girls, and in 2014, it included HPV vaccination in its national immunization program. This year, the Department of Health (DOH) targets to vaccinate 600,000 grade 4 girls aged 9-14 in public schools nationwide.
Expansion of HPV vaccination in full swing
Recently, the DOH, in collaboration with the Department of Education (DepEd), local government units (LGU), and healthcare leader MSD in the Philippines conducted launch events in select cities and municipalities in Central Luzon to educate the public about cervical cancer and to encourage parents to allow their children to avail of the free HPV vaccines in schools and health centers.
In Tarlac City, the vaccination launch was led by City Mayor Maria Cristina Angeles, Central Luzon Center for Health Development family health cluster lead Dr. Janet Miclat, DepEd Tarlac City Schools Division Superintendent Maria Carmen Cuenco, and City Health Officer Dr. Carmela Go.
“If the HPV vaccine were already available in the 1990s, perhaps my mother would still be alive today,” shared Mayor Angeles.
“My mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1993. The doctors did everything they could at the time, and my mom went into remission after some treatment. It came as a shock to us that the cancer reappeared after two years, and it rapidly spread throughout her body,” she recounted.
“I remember feeling helpless as the doctors told us there was nothing else they could do. They advised us to bring her home, make her comfortable, and manage her pain. She finally succumbed to cervical cancer after a few months,” said Mayor Angeles.
“I wish no one else would go through the same ordeal we experienced. That’s why I’m very supportive of this HPV vaccination program, which I think all women need,” Mayor Angeles asserted.
The City Mayor was also thankful that Tarlac City was selected as a beneficiary of the program, adding that they will study how the city can integrate HPV vaccines into their existing health program to protect more constituents.
In Balanga City, Bataan, City Health Officer Dr. Mariano Banzon led the launch event at Cupang Integrated School where he thanked the parents for seeing the program’s value and for giving their consent to have their children vaccinated against HPV.
City Councilor Christian Manalaysay, who chairs the city’s health committee, highlighted the significance of vaccines in maintaining health in the community. This was followed by the commitment exercise led by Ms. Ma. Belina Ibasco from the DOH Bataan Province, Dr. Jose Amado Pingul, Medical Officer, DepEd Balanga City Schools Division Office, Councilor Manalaysay and Dr. Banzon from the LGU, and Oscar Valdecañas from the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
Meanwhile, in Bulacan, City Mayor Henry Villarica, City Vice Mayor Josefina Violago, Councilor Ronald Palomare, and City Health Officer Dr. Christian Roque, together with Dr. Emily Paulino from the DOH Bulacan Province, DepEd City of Meycauayan Schools Division Superintendent Dr. Carolina Violeta led the launch and commitment exercise held at Meycauayan West Central School in Meycauayan City, Bulacan.
“I want to reiterate the importance of the sustained collaboration between the DepEd, DOH, the local government, and the parents in upholding the health and wellness of our learners. I thank the parents for their trust, for allowing their children to be vaccinated, and for understanding the long-term value of HPV vaccines,” said Superintendent Carolina Violeta.
The HPV vaccination expansion program was also launched for the first time in the province of Aurora, led by Dr. Charlou Pabillo of the DOH Aurora Province, Aurora Schools Division Superintendent Catalina Paez, and Councilor Eleazar Palmero of Maria Aurora town.
Furthermore, Governor Christian Noveras of the Province of Aurora committed to mobilizing resources to reach all target beneficiaries in the province. “A province-wide awareness and education campaign is critical to ensure that the public, especially the parents, understand the benefit of this HPV vaccination program,” he said.
The governor also encouraged parents to take advantage of the free HPV vaccination program being given for free to public school girls aged 9 to 14, citing that the vaccine is an essential protection for women against cervical cancer and other HPV-related diseases.
“It is very timely that we are rolling out this vaccination program now that tourists are flocking back to our province almost reaching pre-pandemic numbers and because of the markedly high incidence of adolescent pregnancy in the province,” Governor Noveras explained.
Governor Noveras also tasked his office to establish a vaccination and cervical cancer screening hub within the provincial complex to make these essential health services more accessible to his constituents.
A societal approach is needed to ensure the success of the vaccination programs
Despite these efforts, there are still challenges to successfully implementing vaccination programs in the Philippines. One of the main challenges is the lack of awareness about vaccines and their importance. As a result, many Filipinos are still hesitant to get vaccinated, citing concerns about its safety and efficacy.
To address these challenges, a societal approach is needed to promote the importance of vaccination, correct misinformation, and ensure that Filipinos have access to healthcare services. This includes the continuous and robust collaboration of the government, healthcare providers, educators, and the community.
Healthcare providers play a crucial role in recommending immunization for their patients and addressing concerns about safety and efficacy. They can provide accurate information about the vaccine and its benefits and address patients’ misconceptions.
Similarly, the community also has a critical role in promoting the importance of vaccination. Community leaders, religious leaders, and other influential figures can be allies of the health sector in adapting messages and information, and addressing fears and hesitancy in their respective communities.
Finally, the government can strengthen collaboration with educators to integrate vaccination education into school health curricula and community outreach programs, to effectively disseminate information, increase program compliance, and facilitate monitoring and surveillance.