Mwanahamuntu MH, Sahasrabuddhe VV, Stringer JSA, Parham GP
Peckham and Hann’s call for integrating cervical cancer prevention as part of broader sexual and reproductive health prevention services is especially relevant to sub-Saharan Africa where both cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV/AIDS, are widely prevalent.
Over the past decade, successful HIV/AIDS care and treatment programmes have been instituted in over a dozen hardest-hit sub-Saharan African countries, largely through bilateral and multilateral programmes like the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. HIV-infected women are at heightened risk for pre-invasive and invasive neoplasia of the cervix. HIV/AIDS care and treatment programmes thus provide an ideal platform to integrate cervical cancer prevention activities in countries which face a dual burden of both AIDS and cervical cancer, an AIDS-defining disease. With steady donor support over the past 5 years, these programmes are slowly but steadily contributing to the development of health-care service delivery capacity in emerging nations by establishing infrastructures, training the health-care work force, and tackling complex and challenging problems in implementation and scale-up.
Limited access to cervical cancer prevention services, the usual circumstance for women in low-resource environments, serves as a counterforce to the life-prolonging potential of increased access to affordable antiretroviral therapy. Cervical cancer prevention strategies that use visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) and same-visit cryotherapy (“see-and-treat”) are cost-effective alternatives to cytology-based screening programmes. These procedures can be performed by nurses and other non-physician health-care workers and allow screening and treatment to be linked to the same clinic visit. Our experience in Zambia has shown that VIA-based prevention services that are nested within the context of antiretroviral therapy programmes allow early detection of cervical cancer in high-risk HIV-infected women in a cost-effective way. It also allows opportunities for the provision of broader gynaecologic and other health care for women. Eventual integration of low-cost, rapid screening tests for detecting human papillomavirus within VIA-based screening services will additionally increase programmatic efficiency. When cervical cancer prevention services are offered to HIV-infected women in a venue attended by non-HIV-infected women, a scalable intervention is established that can reach out to all women regardless of HIV status.
Horizontal and diagonal collaborations between agencies and individuals focusing on HIV/AIDS care and cancer prevention could open new vistas for expanding availability of care for women at risk of one or both of these conditions, thereby ensuring wider programme impact. The conjoint contributions of such collaborations may be larger than the sum of their parts.