Vanuatu became the first Pacific Island country to commit to a National Strategy for the Elimination of Cervical Cancer.

In a statement to announce this, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said women in Vanuatu are seven times more likely to die from cervical cancer than women in Australia.

“The new strategy, alongside programs already underway for human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination and cervical cancer screening will set Vanuatu on a pathway to eliminate the entirely preventable cancer,” the MOH stated.

Director of Public Health, Dr Jenny Stephens, said to achieve the elimination target, MOH, and its partners must work together to make sure cervical cancer testing and screening are available at all hospitals, all woman and young girls must go for testing and young girls ages 9 to 13 must vaccinated with HPV vaccines.

“The Government through the Ministry of Health will be committed to make sure 75% of women who are HPV positive will be treated and 90% of young girls ages 9-13 will get vaccinated,” she said.

World Health Organization (WHO) Vanuatu Country Liaison Officer, Dr Ko Eunyoung said Vanuatu is one of the countries in the Western Pacific Region where it conducted HPV-based screening pilots and subnational demonstration projects, combined with approaches to treatment of pre-cancers.

“WHO recommends that primary cervical screening and pre-cancer treatment be fully integrated and, where possible, provided as a same-day service to maximize impact and minimize loss to follow-up,” Dr Eunyoung said.

Across the Pacific, vaccination, screening and treatment for the disease have not been widely implemented. Yet, cervical cancer is preventable and curable and can be eliminated if 90% of girls are vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before age 15; 70% of women are screened at age 35 and again at 45; and 90% of women diagnosed with cervical pre-cancer and cancer are treated.

Professor Andrew Vallely, who jointly leads the Kirby Institute’s engagement in the ‘Elimination of Cervical Cancer in the Western Pacific (ECCWP)’ initiative said that the national strategy will save lives.

“We congratulate the Vanuatu Ministry of Health on leading the Pacific region with their commitment to the elimination of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer remains one of the most common causes of death among women in our region.

“Through the ECCWP program, we are thrilled to support Vanuatu’s cervical cancer elimination strategy and the tremendous leadership and vision of the Vanuatu Ministry of Health.

“It is truly a privilege to be part of this landmark endeavor,” said Vallely.

Dr Boniface Damutalau is a Gynaecologist and Obstetrician at Vila Central Hospital (VCH). He says that the screening programs for cervical cancer in Vanuatu are vital. The ECCWP has already screened over 5,000 women, on its way to a target of 30,000 age eligible women across Vanuatu.

“Without cervical cancer screening, the only time you know there is a problem with cervical cancer is once it is too late, advanced disease. In the early stages of cervical cancer, you don’t have any symptoms or signs, the only way you can diagnose it is through screening,” he said.

“This project is like a big relief, not only can we provide screening for age-eligible woman across Vanuatu through a combination of fixed clinics and outreach, we don’t have to wait for results, we can treat those who test positive for cancer-causing HPV types immediately on the same day. With population spread over 69 inhabited islands, this is important.”

The screening program is a partnership between the MOH in collaboration with the Vanuatu Family Health Association and C4 partners: the Daffodil Centre (a joint venture between Cancer Council NSW and The University of Sydney), the Kirby Institute UNSW Sydney, the Australian Centre for Cervical Cancer Prevention, and Family Planning Australia to implement a national cervical cancer screening program.

Tess Howard is Head of Cancer Prevention for the Minderoo Foundation who provide vital investment to the Elimination of Cervical Cancer in the Western Pacific project.

“Global issues need global support to achieve true impact. When philanthropy, industry, researchers, community organisations and governments come together, we have the power to advance lasting change for a fairer future for women in the Western Pacific,” she said.

Minderoo’s investment is bolstered by donations of equipment and consumables from Cepheid and Copan.