DUBAI // Health officials yesterday launched a new service aiming to break down the cultural barriers that prevent Arab women attending check-ups and being vaccinated against cervical cancer. The Emirates Cervicare Network (ECN) has been created by the Ministry of Health and the Emirates Medical Association to encourage women of all ages to go for an annual Pap smear test and young girls to be vaccinated against the cancer-causing virus.
According to data from the MoH, more than 40 die every year from cervical cancer in the UAE, making it the second biggest killer of women in the country after breast cancer. A vaccination against the infection that causes cervical cancer, called human papillomavirus, or HPV, is available from doctors and costs about Dh1,000 (US$272). Part of the ECN's role will be to "de-stigmatise" the culture of regular Pap smears and the vaccination of young girls for HPV, which is seen primarily as a sexually transmitted disease, although medical experts say it can develop without having sex. In Europe, girls as young as nine or 10 are vaccinated, but girls in the UAE are not even considered for vaccination until the age of 17.
"In terms of the stigma surrounding this, a lot of women will not go for the vaccine because of the sexual implications," said Dr Haifa Hamad Fares, the family medicine specialist at the MoH. "They will go for the Pap smear, but there still needs to be more awareness; many still don't know about cervical cancer." Awareness campaigns will be launched next month, including advertising on Dubai buses, free information packs in Enoc and Epco petrol stations, Carrefour and Union Co-operative supermarkets and several malls and lectures at women's organisations such as the Dubai Ladies Club. The campaign is focusing on Emirati women, but wants to ensure all women are aware of cervical cancer.
Dr Awatef al Bahar, a consultant gynecologist at the Canadian Hospital in Dubai, said: "Tell your mother, sister and auntie to come in for regular check-ups. Try not to smoke, eat healthy food and stay positive; these are all key ways to help prevent cervical cancer. Above all, go for a Pap smear; they are cheap, non-painful and very informative. The vaccination, although it is Dh1,000, is very cheap when you consider the cost and pain of having treatment for HPV and cervical cancer."
Worldwide, one woman dies of the cancer every two minutes. It is considered one of the most preventable types of cancer, despite the fact there are 500,000 new cases and 300,000 deaths per year. Shaymaa Ahmed, 32, a mother of two young children, said she had never been tested. "I've heard of cervical cancer and am aware of the test, but I've never had it done," she said. "It's not something that is stressed enough and so I don't really think about."
She did not have all the information about cervical cancer "and no one has talked to me about it, about preventing it, or about the importance of the test. I learnt about it through the media, but then it is not often brought up. I think there should be more awareness raised on the topic, just like they are doing with breast cancer." Hana Mohamed, an Emirati, 41, said she was aware of cervical cancer, but was not sure if she had been tested. "I only visit the gynecologist when I'm not feeling well, like in a case of an infection or during pregnancy, so I'm not sure if any samples taken were used to test for cervical cancer," she said. "I realise it's important to get tested and that it is a great thing that early detection can save your life, but I rarely hear anything about the subject and don't have the details."
Mrs Mohamed, a mother of two teenage boys, was surprised to learn that so many women in the Middle East died from the disease. "I don't know anyone with the disease and I assumed that you are more likely to get it if you have poor hygiene, if you are promiscuous, or if you already have it in the family, so for those reasons I never considered it a pressing issue and assumed I was relatively safe," she said. "There should be more done to educate women on the subject and people should be given the facts. At the moment, there is no pressure put on women to get tested and generally there is not enough awareness, so many women get lazy and not bother with it."
The cost of cervical cancer was huge, said Dr Fares. "The combined social, economic burden of cervical cancer is significant as it touches the lives of those depending on these women. There is a huge gap in knowledge about cervical cancer and its prevention, which needs to be filled in," he said. * The National