Johannesburg- The Health Department’s campaign to vaccinate school girls for the human papillomavirus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer has been met with scepticism as parents are confusing it with the Covid-19 jab.
September is child cancer awareness month, and though cervical cancer mostly affects older women, it is imperative that girls aged nine and older get the HPV vaccination.
Assistant director for the Western Cape’s department of health Byron La Hoe said they were experiencing difficulties because some parents were hesitant and confusing the HPV vaccine with the Covid-19 vaccine.
The Western Cape and Free State departments of health and education started rolling out the HPV vaccine for school girls again on Monday and will continue until October 29.
The first such drive started nationally in 2014.
“Unfortunately, there are myths circulating that this is the Covid-19 vaccine [and the hesitancy around that], however, this is not the same vaccine. The Covid-19 vaccine is not yet registered in South Africa to be provided to those under 18 years. Hesitancy, non-return of consent forms and absenteeism definitely has a negative impact on the numbers,” said La Hoe.
He said it was important that parents realised the importance of the vaccine as cervical cancers caused by HPV strains placed a huge burden on the healthcare system.
The side-effects of the HPV vaccine, said La Hoe, are minimal and include pain at the injection site and sometimes anxiety or fainting because of fear of the injection.
Howard Ndaba, the spokesperson for the department of education in Free State, also confirmed that schools in the province had started the vaccine drive in their schools on Monday.
The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that HPV is responsible for 99% of cervical cancer cases and that the incidence of cervical cancer in southern, central and east Africa is among the highest in the world and remains a leading cause of cancer mortality.
In SA, one in 26 women develop cervical cancer during their lifetime and each year about 3 000 women die. La Hoe said the HPV vaccination campaign targeted all girls in grade 5 in public schools, and girls older than nine in special schools throughout South Africa. He said the vaccine administered was Cervarix given in two doses for optimal cover to protect against the HPV-16 and HPV-18 strains.
He said up until 2019, only grade 4 pupils whose parents and caregivers had signed consent forms were vaccinated.
Health experts advise that the HPV vaccination provides the most benefit when given before a person has sexual contact and is exposed to HPV, and is therefore rolled out at age nine.
HPV vaccination is also recommended up until age 26, if a girl did not receive it at a younger age.
In March and April this year, the Western Cape health department said health teams visited 1 080 schools and achieved 67% of girls for first dose cover of HPV vaccinations, attributing the low dose coverage to school closures and interruptions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The National Advisory Group on Immunisation recommended changing the target to grade 5 pupils last year.
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