In the city of Iquitos, Peru, a significant study was conducted to assess the stigma associated with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer, particularly in the context of a newly launched HPV 'screen and treat' program. The detailed qualitative research incorporated interviews, focus groups, workshops, counseling observations, and document reviews. The findings revealed the pervasive nature of stigma at individual, relationship, community, and societal levels posing a formidable barrier to women seeking HPV screening, a critical step in preventing cervical cancer.
Stigma: A Barrier to Preventive Healthcare
The study shed light on how women, often blamed for contracting HPV, are deemed promiscuous in these societies. Simultaneously, men are held responsible for being careless or unfaithful. Such societal stigma culminates in feelings of shame and embarrassment, leading some women to avoid screening entirely. The research posits that these barriers hamper the effectiveness of Early Detection and Treatment (EDT) programs for cervical cancer in low-resource settings.
Addressing Stigma: A Prerequisite for Effective Healthcare
The study suggests that to make EDT programs successful, it is imperative to address the stigma prevalent in the healthcare system and the community. The interventions should aim to educate about HPV infections and their latency, emphasizing screening and treatment as essential preventative measures rather than attributing HPV acquisition to sexual behavior.
Elimination of Cervical Cancer: A Feasible but Challenging Goal
The larger objective is the elimination of cervical cancer, a goal within reach with HPV vaccination, screening, and treatment. However, stigmatization, especially in low and middle-income countries where the incidence is higher than in high-income countries, currently impedes this goal. A recent report published by The BMJ also suggested that actively monitoring abnormal cells instead of immediate removal is associated with an increased long-term risk of cervical cancer. The same report also highlighted a school-level HPV vaccination program in Dhaka, aiming to eliminate cervical cancer-related deaths, targeting girls aged between 10 and 14 years. The campaign has already received over 5.5 lakh registrations for the HPV vaccine, indicating a strong drive towards achieving this goal.