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Cervical Cancer – caused by the HPV Virus – is GAIA’s focus for 2014

Why is an organization that was founded “to promote a globally relevant, globally accessible HIV Vaccine” focusing on HPV? Because the steps that must be taken to successfully vaccinate against cervical cancer in developing countries are exactly the same steps that will be necessary when our vaccine is ready for testing and distribution.

We have decided that HPV vaccination is the perfect test case. See the parallels here:

• Cervical cancer can be prevented by vaccination. (AIDS will be when our vaccine is available).

• A vaccine is available now. (Our AIDS vaccine will be globally accessible).

• Cervical cancer disproportionately affects women living in developing countries (like HIV), especially women who are in the ‘prime of their lives’ – raising families and bringing economic stability to their neighborhoods. (The parallels with AIDS are obvious).

• Vaccination must take place early in adolescence, prior to exposure, and getting populations engaged in getting vaccinated means talking about taboo subjects such as sexual activities during young adulthood (as is true for HIV prevention).

• Because of the ‘sexual practice taboo’, many people remain uninformed about HPV (like HIV) and unaware of their risk, and also don’t know how to prevent HPV infection and how to protect against cervical cancer. (See the parallels?)

And now for some facts: When we conducted a recent Malian-based HPV study (see publication here: http://bit.ly/HPV_Mali), a dismal 9.8% of female participants had even heard of cervical cancer.Yet  12%, about 1 in every 10, Malian woman has been diagnosed with HPV.

Further, 80% of those diagnosed with cervical cancer will die from the disease. That is, 1,076 Malian women die each year of preventable cervical cancer due to a lack of cytotechnology screening and early treatment programs. Many of these deaths can be eradicated with the same preventative HPV vaccine that has shown success in the developing world.

How is GAIA VF taking action?

In 2011, GAIA VF began a two-fold analytical  study in Mali as a pilot for the HPV vaccine campaign.

Data was gathered via survey in order to understand the KAP: Knowledges, Attitudes, and Practices, related to HPV and cervical cancer and the peoples’ WTP: Willingness to Participate, in an HPV vaccine trial. A resulting 100% of participants said they would like the vaccine to be available in Mali. But the vaccine will only be relevant in Mali if the predominate subtypes of HPV in the country are the same as those that are prevented with the vaccine (16 &18). Consequently, GAIA VF  is  currently examining tissue and blood samples from women in Bamako’s Hôpital Touré to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the HPV vaccine on cervical cancer rates in Mali. We found that 80% of the specimens were either HPV 16, or HPV 18, or both. This means that the vaccine will be effective against more than 80% of the cervical cancers in Mali. 

It is important to note that GAIA VF is currently an established and locally integrated part of Mali’s healthcare infrastructure. The necessary components of the HPV vaccine initiative, as laid out here, are a blossom that is ready to bear the fruit of lifesaving prevention. Read on to discover how you can help make this possible.

The Next Steps

Now that we are sure that the HPV vaccine will be effective, we are working to improve access to HPV vaccine for Malian women.  As a first step, we would like to get our onsite study team trained and ready to conduct an HPV vaccination study, under highly controlled circumstances.

To do so, we have to raise at least $50,000 for the vaccine distribution project.

Specifically, GAIA VF will be vaccinating adolescents in a preventative approach for a sustainable reduction in the prevalence of HPV in Mali. GAIA VF’s vision for a healthier Mali does not end with the completion of an HPV vaccine trial. In fact, this trial serves as a pilot for all clinical studies to come, and one that will improve the conditions of vaccine research in Mali. A few of the goals of the HPV vaccine trial are to develop protocols for future trials, to put an infrastructure in place of processes and personnel, and to train those personnel with the skills needed to sustain a vaccine trial site. It is GAIA VF’s hope to eventually distribute the HIV vaccine that is currently being developed at no cost in developing countries like Mali.

The HPV Cloth

Every culture has unique forms of interaction: In what medium we are comfortable communicating with each other effects how effective we will be at doing so. In West Africa, textiles have traditionally served as a medium of communication, and a method of storytelling. GAIA VF has worked with Eliza Squibb, a RISD student, to develop a cloth that tells the story of strong, educated women who proclaim, “I immunize myself, I protect myself, and I take care of myself” – a mantra written as a banner across the image offlowering, healthy cervixes. Nearly disguised in the beautifully vivid print are the images of fallopian tubes and uteruses surrounding a near-invasion of HPV viruses embedded in abnormal cervical cells. It is the banner of strength that keeps the virus out of the healthy cervixes, a reminder of the importance of being an educated, vaccinated woman. Through GAIA VF’s HPV vaccine initiative, every Malian woman who receives the HPV vaccine will receive a cloth so that she might pass on the story of prevention and vaccination, and take on a personal role in curing cervical cancer.

Past, Present, and Future

In short, the GAIA VF HPV vaccine initiative will use traditions of storytelling through textiles in order to change the Malian peoples’ present understanding of HPV and cervical cancer in order to create a foundation of prevention through education and vaccination in Mali. This is an integrated project that involves not only the scientists and personnel at GAIA VF, but the people of Mali in taking steps towards curing cervical cancer.

Without your help, the bright future we are anxious to begin here at GAIA VF may not be attainable. As the 33,000 doses of the HPV vaccine continue to perish in Mali, time is running out and we cannot fund distribution of this vaccine alone. Through a donation ofonly $50 you can provide doses of the HPV vaccine to 10 adolescents only $5 per lifesaving dose. A donation of $25 will cover the cost of transporting those 10 adolescents to vaccination sites- less than the cost of a morning latte per transport. We are also looking for donations of $100 to transport 10 mothers to hospitals for cervical cancer exams and biopsies, and donations of $250 to manufacture the printed cloth for 25 girls. It does not take a river to fuel an ocean, but rather drops of rain to build a wave. You can give the gift of immunization, protection, and care to generations of Malian women who will benefit from the promise of sustained prevention. In solidarity, we thank you in advance for your generosity.