17 May 2019

Five facts about cervical cancer and how Unitaid is battling the disease

Q&A

Cervical cancer is a common cancer in women, with about 570,000 new cases in 2018 and more than 311,000 deaths—85 percent of them in less-developed countries. Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. While most HPV infections clear up on their own, and precancerous lesions resolve, some infections progress to invasive cancer.

Cervical cancer can develop in just 5-10 years in women with weakened immune systems, such as those living with HIV, compared to 15-20 years in women with normal immunity. Co-infection with other sexually transmitted infections like herpes simplex, chlamydia and gonorrhea also predisposes women to cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking, having many babies and bearing children at an early age.

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and curable cancers, if diagnosed early and managed effectively. The number of deaths due to this disease have increased by 17% since 2012. If we do not act, the death toll will rise by almost 50% by 2040. Women living in lower income countries are more than eight times more likely to develop cervical cancer than those in high-income countries. Women living with HIV are four times more likely to develop cervical cancer once infected with HPV.

Screening and treatment of precancerous lesions are the norm and have proved successful in high-income countries. However, high costs, ineffective screening methods and treatment devices that are hard to use in remote settings have held back progress.

Unitaid’s upcoming investments seek to reduce cervical cancer illness and death by expanding access to better tests and treatments that are affordable, effective and handy.

Unitaid’s first project in cervical cancer will be led by Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). The US$ 33 million initiative will be implemented in India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia.

Aiming to develop US$ 1 screen-and-treat solution for cervical cancer, the project will pioneer a common cellphone application using artificial intelligence that can detect signs of cancer with more than 90% accuracy. The initiative will also expand access to affordable and portable treatment devices for precancerous lesions.

Unitaid’s innovations are designed to be scaled up by partners such as the Global Fund and PEPFAR. If broadly adopted, the innovations could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, including those living with HIV, and empower them to lead healthy and productive lives.

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