Awareness campaign starts to fight cancer

Health workers hope that a nationwide drive will help women beat cervical cancer.

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ABU DHABI // The first nationwide campaign to raise awareness of cervical cancer among women was launched yesterday.

It is the second most common form of cancer among women, but according to a 2010 study carried out by doctors at Al Ain's Tawam Hospital 70 per cent of cases in the UAE are diagnosed late - at a stage when they are incurable.

There are between 50 and 55 cases recorded in the Emirates every year and about half a million worldwide.

With the vast majority of instances of cervical cancer - cancer of the neck of the womb - said to be preventable if caught early enough, a countrywide stance to hammer home the importance of awareness is vital, said Aisha Al Zaabi, the head of health awareness at the Woman's General Union, which is leading the campaign.

"People here do not have an understanding of the importance of knowing things [about cervical cancer]. When we talked to people, especially the young generations, we noticed that they didn't know anything about cervical cancer.

"They care about things other than scientific and medical awareness. They feel shy when it comes to sensitive issues like cervical cancer, even if they go [to a female doctor]."

The year-long national campaign, which also involves the Dubai Health Authority and the Emirates Medical Association, will ensure patients, doctors and nurses are well-versed on how to prevent cervical cancer, said Dr Jalaa Taher, the section head of cancer control and prevention at the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (Haad).

"It will include public seminars, training for school nurses, doctors, physicians and pathologists - everyone involved in cervical cancer screening."

Training will begin in the spring and will involve teaching healthcare professionals, especially general practitioners, to make female patients more open to discussing the benefits of preventive methods such as the HPV vaccine or having a Papanicolaou test, better known as a pap-smear.

Some women rely solely on their doctor to guide them in the right direction, said Dr Taher.

"These tests are done by smears, but they are opportunistic. If the lady asks, if she insists, if the doctor talks to her, then she will get it. But this does not happen on a regular basis."

By offering this service, doctors can create a supportive environment for female patients, said Lily O'Hara, the section head of health promotion at Haad.

"What we really encourage general practitioners and physicians to do is to raise the issue of the vaccination and pap-smears when a patient comes in for anything."

The very nature of cervical cancer, of which 99 per cent of cases are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted disease (STD), has also influenced people's hesitance in finding out more, said Ms Al Zaabi.

"When you talk about any STDs, there is a cultural barrier. Firstly, they [women] feel that it is something they should not talk about because it will never happen to them. They are not aware they might get it."

Preventive measures by Haad have ensured that younger generations living in the capital have ample access to the vaccine and the information surrounding it.

Available to female pupils in Grade 11 - provided they have parental consent - as of 2011, 70 per cent of schoolchildren have now been given the HPV vaccine, said Dr Taher.

Haad recommendations state that females over the age of 15 should receive the vaccine once during their life. After the age of 25, women should book themselves a pap-smear every three to five years.

The new campaign will also involve the creation of a national helpline and a standardised screening system in Abu Dhabi, as well as reduced costs for non-nationals who want to be tested.