By Jennifer Bentzel and Emily Esworthy/IMA World Health
urse Joy Agutu enjoys her work. She, along with a doctor and a few other nurses, conducts cervical cancer screening and treatment for women at Shirati KMT Hospital in Tanzania’s Lake region. Agutu is a true champion for cervical cancer screening, encouraging and counseling women wherever she goes and getting periodic screenings herself. She also enjoys working with elders and community leaders, whom she describes as “cooperative and encouraging,” to promote village screening campaigns. Her days are rewarding.
Indeed, reducing cervical cancer deaths in Tanzania should be easy and rewarding; health workers know screenings are important, and the supplies cost only a few cents per patient. Plus, demand is high. The screening campaigns IMA World Health has conducted in Tanzania’s Mara and Lake regions have frequently shattered expectations, with lines of women snaking through the neighborhood as they wait their turn.
Yet year after year cervical cancer continues to kill more women in Tanzania than any other type of cancer.
For more than six years, IMA World Health—with funding from the IZUMI Foundation, American Baptist Churches (USA), Week of Compassion, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and private donors—has supported Shirati and other health facilities to ease the burden of cervical cancer by training health workers, providing testing and treatment supplies and equipment and creating referral linkages to larger hospitals for those who require additional treatment. Through this support, 24,000 women have been screened to date—most of whom would otherwise have no access to these services.
But the challenges are many, and few have a better understanding of them and their solutions than Agutu and the team at Shirati. Recently, they sat down with IMA staff to highlight the challenges and discuss how, together, we can strengthen the response to the rising number of cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths.
BARRIERS TO CERVICAL CANCER TREATMENT
Challenge: Lack of supplies
The basic supplies for cervical cancer screenings are fairly inexpensive and easy to obtain: gloves, speculum, vinegar, cotton swab, flashlight. But considering the volume of need, these supplies vanish quickly. Shirati relies on donations from IMA World Health and our partners to maintain their stock of screening supplies. These are in such demand that the health workers who conduct the screenings, like Nurse Agutu, work as volunteers so that all funds can go to supplies and outreach.
In a country where urgent needs compete for limited health care resources, cervical cancer screening supplies—and indeed the screenings themselves—are not a given or, in most cases, even a priority. Since many of the women who are most in need of screening are often those who suffer the hardest from poverty, screenings through Shirati’s outreach campaigns are free. There is no revenue to self-fund the program and replenish supplies—meaning hundreds if not thousands of at-risk women are unable to receive screening when supplies run out.