By Ntsoaki Motaung
The Ministry of Health has announced an expansion in the eligibility age for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, intensifying the fight against cervical cancer.
Health Minister Selibe Mochoboroane declared that the initiative now includes girls up to 18 years and, in special cases, extends to 24 years for those who are immunocompromised.
The previous HPV campaign targeted girls aged 9-14 years.
“This extension is crucial, particularly for women living with HIV, who are at a higher risk of cervical cancer,” Mochoboroane stated.
He emphasised the importance of this move, following the recent HPV vaccination campaign, and outlined the government’s plan for a school-based and door-to-door vaccination approach.
“We recognise the unique challenges faced by immunocompromised girls and are committed to ensuring their protection against HPV. Extending the vaccination age up to 24 years is a testament to our commitment to leaving no one behind. We must rally together to protect those who may be more susceptible to the effects of HPV,” Mochoboroane urged, calling on parents and caregivers to seize this opportunity for their daughters’ health.
The campaign, commencing in schools across the country on February 4, offers a convenient way for eligible girls to receive the vaccine.
“If a girl misses the vaccination in school, parents and caregivers are reminded that the HPV vaccine is available at the nearest health facility,” Mochoboroane added.
Citing global statistics, Mochoboroane highlighted the grave threat posed by cervical cancer, with Lesotho recording significant numbers of cases and deaths annually. He noted that globally, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women, with 570,000 diagnosed and 311,000 women dying in 2018.
“In 2020, in the African Region, 100,000 women developed cervical cancer, and approximately 70,000 of these women died.”
“Lesotho’s current estimates indicate that every year, 541 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 362 (87 per cent) die from the disease. Human HPV is known to cause almost all (99 per cent) of cervical cancer cases, transmitted during sexual contact. However, cervical cancer can be prevented and cured. HPV vaccination is a game-changer in the fight to end this disease,” the minister emphasised.
Minister of Education and Training Ntoi Rapapa underscored the role of the education system in fostering students’ health.
“Our school-based strategy ensures accessibility and minimises disruption to work and school schedules,” Rapapa explained.
He pledged ongoing efforts to inform the public about the HPV vaccine and to integrate health initiatives into the educational framework.
“We are actively collaborating with the Ministry of Health to identify unvaccinated girls and support school vaccination planning,” Rapapa continued.
He indicated the ministry has engaged students through activities such as essay writing to raise awareness about HPV and cervical cancer.
“We will continue to provide credible information on the HPV vaccine by engaging all stakeholders and conducting public awareness and sensitisation sessions,” he added.
He further expressed the ministry’s commitment to ensuring female learners’ well-being through concerted efforts at the central and district levels.
“We are working to support the Ministry of Health’s District Health Management Teams (DHMTs) in identifying unvaccinated girls in schools between the ages of 9 and 14 years, supporting DHMTs in preparing micro plans that include dates of vaccination, and conducting learning-related demand generation activities such as essay writing on Human Papilloma Virus and Cervical cancer in schools,” he said.
Dr. Richard Banda, the WHO Representative, expressed optimism about eliminating cervical cancer in Lesotho, explaining that the HPV vaccine is a cost-effective prevention method.
“I am certain we all have a sense of hope, optimism, and realism because, outside the emotional and physical trauma that cervical cancer causes, there is a huge financial burden in its treatment. WHO recommends HPV vaccines for girls as a core strategy for prevention against cervical cancer,” he said.
According to Banda, the WHO’s Global Strategy for cervical cancer elimination by 2030 calls on all countries to vaccinate 90 per cent of all girls against HPV by age 15.
“We have a huge urgency to address gaps in vaccination, screening, and cancer treatment,” he said.
He noted that with more than 200 million doses given globally, no major side effects due to the vaccine have been reported.
“I must commend Lesotho for scaling up cancer screening through Pap Smear, Visual Inspection with Acetic acid (VIA), and HPV testing,” Banda noted.