More than 400 women were screened for cervical cancer and those with suspicious results received an initial treatment for free during The United Methodist Church’s annual women’s convention at Clare Camping Ground.
The yearly conventions are a time of spiritual growth and renewal and are held at four camping grounds in the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area. The August gathering held at Clare, which is for four districts from the Zimbabwe East Conference, was attended by over 6,500 people this year.
The convention program includes teaching on health or social issues, and this year the topic was cervical cancer. For the first time, women at the convention learned about the disease and got tested. Those with suspicious results were transported for initial treatment for free at Rusape government hospital and then returned to the convention.
Sister Sekai Duviwa, a nurse from Rusape Hospital and a team of 12 trained medical personnel conducted Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid and Cervicography for three days at the convention site. They also conducted HIV counseling and testing and breast palpitations to screen for breast cancer.
“In Zimbabwe, the majority of cancer patients, 80 percent, present late — third and fourth stage — resulting in increased premature deaths from cancer,” said Dr. Anold T. Vhumisai, who taught the congregation about cervical cancer. Vhumisai, a United Methodist, is the head of West End Hospital, one of the largest private hospitals in Harare.
“Diagnosis of cancer at earlier stages of disease can enhance chances of successful treatment outcomes. It is therefore important for sexually active women to be regularly screened for cervical cancer through Pap smear test or VIAC,” he said.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer among women worldwide. According to the national cancer registry, it is estimated that 2,270 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in Zimbabwe, with a 64 percent mortality rate. Some cases are suspected to go unreported in rural areas.
The high death rate is compounded by the high HIV prevalence, late presentation of the disease, poor screening, diagnosis and treatment. According to UNICEF, Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa at 13.7 percent of the adult population.
Duviwa said VIAC had become the screening method of choice for many as the procedure takes just eight minutes for a negative client.“We need more time for those with suspicious results, which we refer to the laboratory and the client has to undergo cryotherapy as the first line of treatment,” she said.
Cryotherapy is application of liquid nitrogen to freeze off and destroy the suspected pre-cancerous cells. If cryotherapy does not treat the condition, the women are then referred to a hospital where tests are done to check if they have cancer.
Screening was done on women ages 18 to 75. Teenagers who were not yet sexually active were not tested. Duviwa said risk factors that expose women to cervical cancer include having many sexual partners, early sexual activity (18 years and younger), traditional practices such as applying herbs into private parts, and HIV.
Evangelista Pfupa, 56, was one of the women who attended the free clinic.
“This is a valuable service. It is very helpful, especially for those living in the rural areas where VIAC is not available,” she said.
“At the convention, we were taught everything we should know about cervical cancer and didn’t incur any transport costs as health personnel were on hand to provide screening and treatment,” Pfupa said.
Faith Kanenungo, who braved the long line at the makeshift clinic, said she was grateful the church had provided the life-saving screening and treatment.
Anna Hlahla, who leads the women’s organization in Chitungwiza Marondera District, said it was important for women to get the screening services after they learned about the disease.
“This is the first time we have offered testing and treatment at a convention. We worked in partnership with the government’s Ministry of Health and Child Care to provide these services at the camping ground. A doctor was also available to take those with suspicious VIAC results to the hospital and treat them,” she said.
“After learning about the disease, women were able to get free testing and treatment right here and then return to attend church services,” said Hlahla.