On 30 April the Egyptian government launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of cervical cancer and offer free immunization to 15,000 unmarried women on the assumption that they would not have had any sexual contact.
Cervical cancer is caused by sexually-acquired infection; prevention and treatment are unaffordable for many of Egypt’s poor.
According to Omar Abdel Aziz, a gynaecologist from Cairo University, 80 percent of women in Egypt are prone to cervical cancer and there are 100,000 new cases a year, making it the second most widespread form of cancer in women after breast cancer.
Specialists like Mohamed Ismail, a leading Egyptian cancer specialist and the former director of Cairo’s Al Galaa Hospital for Women, say half of newly infected women die because of the disease.
“Cervical cancer is becoming a real challenge in our country,” Ismail told IRIN. “The fact that the disease does not have any signs makes a large number of women discover their infection very late and when these women visit a specialist they are beyond treatment in most cases.
“A cervical cancer vaccine sells for 700 Egyptian pounds [US$117] and in order to be totally immunized, women need to get these vaccines three times over a period of six months,” Ismail said. “This brings the total cost of immunization to 2,100 pounds [$350], which is a fortune for millions of women in this country.”
Around 25 percent of Egyptians live in poverty, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
The lack of money is, however, not the only thing that makes prevention work in Egypt difficult. Cervical cancer specialists point to the importance of visual inspection and treatment to try to catch the infection in its early stages.
Experts say a set of psychological and social circumstances make Egyptian women less willing to get tested or even visit a specialist.
“The relationship between women in a country like Egypt and their bodies is totally different from the same relationship between women and their bodies in Western countries, for example,” said Menan Abdel Maqsoud, a psychology professor from Ain Shams University. “It is difficult to find a woman who is ready to show her body easily here, but the problem is that this can delay or hinder treatment.”
Gynaecologist Haitham Badran says some women have the disease for 10 years, but only visit a specialist when symptoms start to appear. Another gynaecologist tells the story of a woman who travelled 500km from her home town of Marsa Matrouh to his clinic in Cairo only to refuse to let him check her.
“Patients come to me only when the disease is at its final stages,” Badran said. “This culture must change.”
Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), passed from person to person through sexual contact, is the main cause of cervical cancer, and there are a number of risk factors.