Category Archives: Cervical Cancer

Despite COVID-19 Challenges, I-TECH Supports Progress Toward Cervical Cancer Elimination

The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer, launched in November 2020, calls for a world where cervical cancer—which kills more than 300,000 women per year—is eliminated. To achieve this, the strategy proposes ambitious 90-70-90 targets over the next decade.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hindered critical work on cervical cancer interventions, including reduced clinic flow, training opportunities, and outreach.

Due to agile programs and dedicated staff, several teams within the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) network, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, have continued to make strides toward the WHO cervical cancer elimination goal.

Record-breaking cervical cancer screening in Namibia

The I-TECH Namibia program focuses on cervical cancer screening services for women living with HIV (WLHIV). Namibia’s national antiretroviral therapy (ART) program has rapidly adjusted to COVID-19 and the need to decongest public health facilities through multi-month dispensing (MMD) of ART. While this has helped with ART access, it has significantly reduced opportunities for performing facility-based services, since the frequency of health facility visits by women on ART has declined rapidly.

In close collaboration with the Namibia Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS), I-TECH is implementing enhanced facility-based screening campaigns to increase access and rapidly reach more women. For these enhanced screenings, clients within a district are mobilized and given paced appointment times at several facilities in-line with COVID-19 restrictions. Service providers are then assigned to the specific sites where they provide screening services.

From 8-12 February, 805 women were screened through visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) or Pap smear, 95% of whom were women living with HIV (WLHIV). Of the 137 women screened VIA positive, 98% received treatment. This campaign broke national records by achieving the highest recorded number of women screened in a 5-day campaign, as well as the highest number of women screened in a single day (210).

“As the COVID 19 pandemic rages on, and preventative restrictions limit client screening, the downtime should be used in planning for catch-up screening activities,” says Dr. Laura Muzingwani, I-TECH’s Cervical Cancer Lead Physician in Namibia. “Resource and client mobilization are both key to prepare for any window of opportunity when COVID restrictions are relaxed to enable rapid mass screening.”

Mentoring and training continues in Mozambique via videoconferencing technology

In close collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center—a Project ECHO® “superhub” for oncology—I-TECH has continued its monthly cervical cancer ECHO sessions in Mozambique, with an additional focus on COVID-19 safety and risk reduction. An average of 40 participants attend each session, and topics have included cervical changes in older women; relevance of normal and abnormal colposcopic findings; and hygiene, disinfection, and asepsis of materials.

“Although the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic was sudden, it was possible to adapt quickly using remote information and communication technologies,” says Dr. Ernestina David, Program Manager for the I-TECH Cervical Cancer Prevention Program. “The ECHO videoconference sessions made it possible to bring together providers across the country to address uterine cancer and diagnose and treat pre-cancerous lesions, using local cases and looking for ways to approach and treat them.”

In addition, the Mozambique team has continued its regional cervical cancer trainings in a blended format (both virtual and in-person components). I-TECH has implemented three trainings using a model spearheaded by MD Anderson, wherein a two-day LEEP and colposcopy training was adjusted so that trainers could join via Zoom in lieu of traveling to Mozambique.

While some participants join only the Zoom sessions, others are able to watch the sessions from a classroom setting and then work through skills-building demo stations, followed by practice on patients at a provincial hospital.

Access to services increase through health communication in Malawi

Despite the Malawi government indicating cervical cancer screening, care, and treatment as priority services, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, most facilities did not include cervical cancer services on their priority lists. Facilities either completely suspended or heavily reduced screening and treatment. This, coupled with fears among targeted women about contracting COVID-19, marginalized access to services.

To combat these challenges, I-TECH delivered health talks within communities on how women can protect themselves as they access services (social distancing, hand washing, use of face masks, etc.). Those reached were encouraged to pass on information to others.

I-TECH also engaged district health officers and those in charge of affected facilities on the need to continue providing cervical cancer services, in line with MOH COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Presenters emphasized the burden of cervical cancer and how it would worsen should services be interrupted for the entirety of the pandemic. Discussion also touched on including cervical cancer providers on the rotation roster and ensuring that commodities were available.

In Malawi, 391 health facilities are currently providing cervical cancer screening services, and 80% of those health facilities are also providing treatment services. More than a quarter of a million women were screened between January 2020 and June 2021, 57% of whom were WLHIV.

Zimbabwe consortium takes measures to blunt the impact of COVID-19

I-TECH and its network partner the Zimbabwe Training, Technical Assistance and Education Center for Health (Zim-TTECH) implement cervical cancer screening and treatment via the local Zimbabwean consortium ZimPAAC.

By March 2021, ZimPAAC had achieved 53% of the annual target for the number of women on ART screened for cervical cancer. ZimPAAC implemented several measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on continuity of cervical cancer screening services, including:

  • Training of all health care workers on COVID-19 safety and security, transmission, and prevention;
  • Support to ensure infection prevention and control (IPC) and triage at health facilities through training, procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand washing stations/commodities, face masks for both staff and clients in need; and
  • Procurement and distribution adequate PPE for use by health care workers at facilities.

I-TECH Team Contributes to New WHO Recommendations for Cervical Cancer Screening and Treatment

After two years of collaborative work, the World Health Organization (WHO) today launched a critical publication to aid health care workers in the march toward cervical cancer elimination: The WHO Guidelines for Screening and Treatment of Cervical Pre-Cancer Lesions for Cervical Cancer Prevention.

The guidelines contain evidence-based recommendations for cervical cancer screening and were created in the context of the WHO global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer, as well as the need to provide screening and prevention services to all women around the globe.

Dr. Linda Eckert–University of Washington (UW) Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Adjunct Professor of Global Health, and technical advisor to I-TECH’s cervical cancer programs in Namibia, Malawi, and Botswana–served as one of the lead consultants coordinating the WHO guidelines.

“It has been a true privilege to join with WHO colleagues to collect and synthesize data and work with cost effectiveness modelers and our 60-member multinational Guideline Development Group, who shared their immense experience and knowledge to create these evidence-based guidelines,” said Dr. Eckert. “It is so hopeful for women around the globe, and I feel inspired thinking about how many women can be spared the suffering of cervical cancer through implementation of these guidelines.”

Dr. Laura Muzingwani, the lead physician for I-TECH’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Program in Namibia, was also an active member of the Guideline Development Group. Her experience and expertise in cervical cancer screening and treatment in Namibia enabled her to offer valuable guidance in the crafting of these recommendations.

In addition to the UW, contributing partners in the project included McMaster University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Unitaid, among others.

I-TECH’s Work Supports WHO’s First-Ever Strategy to Eliminate Cervical Cancer

The International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) is proud to support today’s launch of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer. I-TECH has supported interventions for education, testing, and treatment of cervical cancer since 2014.

In Namibia, I-TECH currently supports screening and treatment at 31 health facilities and 11 outreach sites in seven regions. As of August 2020, the program had performed more than 14,000 screenings and 1,700 treatment procedures for HIV-positive women.

The Namibia team has also launched a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of screening for and treatment of cervical pre-cancer in women aged 20–49. The campaign has been crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as patients may be less likely to visit their health care provider for preventive care, including cervical cancer screening and treatment.

I-TECH’s network partner in Botswana, the Botswana Training and Education Center for Health (B-TECH), will soon begin work on a national cervical cancer and treatment program, focused on women living with HIV. Activities will include providing quality routine cervical cancer screening and treatment for all eligible women living with HIV at high-volume ART sites in 12 districts, as well as raising awareness among this population.

B-TECH — in conjunction with I-TECH, University of Botswana, and the National Cervical Cancer Prevention Program (NCCPP) — will align national screening and treatment guidelines with WHO standards to ensure sustainability. B-TECH will also work closely with National Laboratories to increase capacity for quality cervical cancer screening services.

Dr. Linda Eckert, UW Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology as well as Global Health, is lead coordinator for updating WHO recommendations on cervical cancer screening and treatment and serves as technical advisor to I-TECH in this work in Namibia and Botswana. She notes that the time has come for the WHO strategy.

“The WHO’s Cervical Cancer Elimination Strategy will literally save millions of women’s lives around the globe,” says Dr. Eckert. “Each year, over 300,000 women die of cervical cancer, and the number of deaths is projected to increase by over 20% in the next decade.

“Almost all cervical cancer can be prevented—making these deaths even more tragic,” she continues. “This is the first time WHO has launched a cancer elimination strategy, calling on the global community who care for women to say ‘enough’ to cervical cancer, ‘enough’ to these preventable deaths.”

I-TECH Launches Cervical Cancer Awareness Campaign in Namibia

The International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH), in collaboration with the Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services (MOHSS) and with funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of screening for and treatment of cervical pre-cancer in women aged 20–49.

This awareness campaign is the most recent expansion of the Namibian Cervical Cancer Screening and Treatment Program, which was rolled out in 2018 following the adoption of national cervical cancer guidelines by the MOHSS in March 2018.

MoHSS Health extension worker and data clerk capturing data for the National Cervical Cancer Program.

The rollout of this awareness campaign and expansion of the program has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because patients may be less likely to visit their health care provider for preventive care, including cervical cancer screening and treatment.

“This campaign will bring a much-needed awareness to not only screening but also the different treatment options that are available,” says Dr. Laura Muzingwani, I-TECH’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Lead Physician in Namibia. “We want to ensure that all women, particularly HIV-positive women, are empowered to take action and get screened for cervical cancer. We also want to inform women that they can still be safely screened despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Screening and treatment are available to anyone who needs it, but the I-TECH program has focused its efforts on HIV-positive women. Women living with HIV are five to six times more likely to develop cervical cancer than HIV-negative women, even if they are on antiretroviral therapy (ART). Currently, the I-TECH program supports screening and treatment at 31 MOHSS health facilities and 11 outreach sites in seven regions across Namibia. As of August 2020, the program had performed more than 14,000 screenings and 1,700 treatment procedures for HIV-positive women.

“The cervical cancer program has achieved a lot of success within a short period,” says Dr. Laimi Ashipala, MOHSS Chief Medical Officer HIV/AIDS and STI Control subdivision. “With these additional outreach and awareness efforts, we hope to reach 100,000 HIV-positive women in the next two years.”

As part of the campaign’s outreach efforts to reach HIV-positive women, I-TECH is contacting women receiving ART to offer cervical cancer screenings during their routine medication pick-up visits. The team is also reaching out to community-based ART refill groups as a way to bring screening services to HIV-positive women at community meeting points.

Expanding and Adapting the Health Care Provider Training Program

VIA provider providing VIA services.

In addition to awareness and outreach, the program has expanded cervical cancer screening and treatment training for health care providers (e.g., doctors, registered and enrolled nurses).

“Key aspects of the program have been the training and uptake of our health care providers,” explains Dr. Ashipala. “We are scaling up our efforts to train and certify health care providers in using VIA and ablative treatments throughout the country. In addition to VIA and ablative treatments, we have also expanded training and certification to include LLETZ and cervical biopsies, which allows us to treat patients who may not be eligible for ablative treatments.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to adjustments in the way trainings are provided for the safety of facilitators and participants and to aid in pandemic control efforts. In response, I-TECH supported a virtual MOHSS VIA (visual inspection with acetic acid or VIA) screening training for nine, newly recruited cervical cancer screening health care providers. Since the program began in 2018, I-TECH and MOHSS have trained 249 health care providers.

Creating a Suite of Informational Materials

This Cervical Cancer Prevention brochure is one of several pieces in a suite of materials created by I-TECH.

I-TECH, in collaboration with stakeholders, has developed a suite of materials—flyers, brochures, and posters—for patients and providers to complement the outreach and training efforts.

The materials highlight the importance of screening, encourage women to make an appointment, explain the method of screening, and provide information about the treatment options that are offered through the program.

The materials will be used by health care providers during health education sessions with patients, distributed to women when they visit their health care facility or ART clinic, and following screening and/or treatment appointments. Some of the materials will also be displayed at health facilities and referral hospitals to advertise screening availability.

“We applaud the Ministry for highlighting the need for cervical cancer prevention, screening, and treatment despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and taking action by collaborating in the development of resources, adopting guidelines for providers, and supporting training for health care providers,” says Dr. Muzingwani.

I-TECH Presents Posters at AIDS 2020: Virtual

The International AIDS Society (IAS) virtually hosted their 23rd International AIDS conference (AIDS 2020: Virtual) on 6-10 July 2020. The AIDS 2020: Virtual theme was resilience, to celebrate and acknowledge the strength of the HIV community and the significant advances in treatment, while also addressing gaps in treatment, prevention, and care.

Representatives from the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) virtually presented the following posters with accompanying audio recordings:

In addition to the I-TECH representatives presenting their posters, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Health Alliance International (HAI) also presented data from I-TECH programs in Malawi and Mozambique.

Expanding HIV Care and Treatment in Zimbabwe

The ZimPAAC consortium collaborates with the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) in Zimbabwe to meet the following primary HIV epidemic control objectives:

  • Diagnose 95% of all persons living with HIV through integrated testing
  • Ensure 95% of individuals diagnosed with HIV are initiated on antiretroviral therapy (ART), retained in care, and are virally suppressed using differentiated service delivery models

Using a Differentiated care model, a patient-centered model of service delivery designed to meet the diverse needs and expectations of all people living with HIV, ZimPAAC oversees activities such as:

  • facility and community-based HIV testing;
  • HIV self-testing, index case testing;
  • ART initiation; and
  • ART delivery through multi-month refills for stable patients, Family ART Refill Groups, and Community ART Refill Groups (CARGs). CARGs benefit group members—through decreasing health center visits, offering peer support, and allowing clients to take responsibility for their health—and staff, by decreasing workload and allowing greater time for patient care.
I-TECH Zimbabwe Care and Treatment Sites and Districts

A map of I-TECH’s Care and Treatment Sites and Districts in Zimbabwe.

In addition to differentiated service delivery, ZimPAAC conducts site-level mentoring at health facilities to strengthen health service delivery towards the “95-95-95” UNAIDS targets by improving patient linkages between HIV testing, initiation on treatment, and retention in care rates. This is accomplished in part by several hundred dedicated HIV testers and nurses who support ART initiation and management of opportunistic infections alongside MoHCC staff.

ZimPAAC also supports index testing through community linkages activities that help clients access HIV testing, especially sexual partners and biological children of existing HIV-positive clients who present to the health facilities. In an effort to improve index testing within MoHCC health facilities, ZimPAAC has implemented an assisted partner service model, known as Enhanced Index Case Testing. This program emphasizes reaching clients recently diagnosed with HIV and those whose blood tests show a high HIV viral load. Quality Improvement activities are a key part of ZimPAAC’s approach to improving outcomes for index testing. In 2019, a “change package” describing the interventions that have improved index testing was developed by ZimPAAC for national scale-up of the model.

ZimPAAC program activities also support retaining people living with HIV in care. Programs engage community linkage facilitators who work with facilities and communities to identify patients who have defaulted from treatment and return them to services.

In addition to HIV care and prevention for adults, ZimPAAC supports increased access to services for children and adolescents through Africaid’s community adolescent treatment supporters (CATS). CATS are HIV positive 18-to-24-year-olds trained to provide peer support, conduct demand-creation activities, build community engagement, and mobilize targeted HIV testing and outreach activities to bring services to this hard-to-reach group.

In addition to the first two objectives, ZimPAAC collaborates with MoHCC towards two additional objectives:

  • Strengthen and expand access to cervical cancer screening and treatment of precancerous cervical lesions among women living with HIV
  • Increase uptake of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) services through training, technical assistance and direct client support

In 2019, ZimPAAC began the expansion of cervical cancer screening for women living with HIV, beginning with a situational analysis to identify sites for implementation of a program serving women with visual inspection with acetic acid and cerviography.

Under the direction of PZAT, ZimPAAC also works closely with the MoHCC to support key-population-friendly programming in the public health sector facilities in Harare. PZAT supports health worker training at selected facilities and builds demand and knowledge of these services through community champions and engagement with vulnerable populations and advocacy and civil society organizations. PZAT also works to promote PrEP services for adolescent girls and young women in Mazowe district and among key populations in Harare.

Cervical Cancer Screening and Treatment Strategy Support in Malawi

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women in Malawi. In response, the Ministry of Health (MOH) in Malawi developed a five-year National Cervical Cancer Control Strategy for 2016-2020. The strategy outlines comprehensive interventions, including the integration of cervical cancer screening services into HIV care.

In 2019, I-TECH supported the review and update of the National Cervical Cancer Guidelines and the accompanying monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework in partnership with the Department of Reproductive Health and the Department of HIV/AIDS in Malawi. Training materials were developed in accordance with the updated guidelines and trainings rolled out across the country. As part of their support, the I-TECH team conducted a needs assessment to establish which sites in the Southwest Zone had received equipment for cervical cancer screening and treatment services. At that time, they found only 45 health facilities that offered these services to women. Just two years later (as of June 2021), there are at least 357 health facilities (46.1% of all HIV treatment sites in Malawi) currently providing cervical cancer screening services and 211 providing treatment services. Integration with HIV/AIDS programming has resulted in the screening of 79,171 HIV positive women (52.4% of all women screened), with 4,506 (6%) obtaining a screen positive test result and 1,584 (35% of those with a screen positive result) receiving treatment in 2020.

All women and girls (inclusive of HIV positive women) reached with cervical cancer prevention, screening, and treatment services in 2020 is illustrated in the following graph:

I-TECH also led the development of a cervical cancer Client Diagnosis and Treatment Register that is used in hospitals providing cervical cancer treatment in Malawi. This register helps to provide critical data for programmatic decision making, like confirmed cases, deaths, as well as data on cancer staging and the number of women receiving treatment.

To ensure that the strategy continues to endorse current evidence-based approaches and M&E frameworks, the team convenes regular cervical cancer partner meetings to review standard operating procedures and the M&E framework, revise monitoring tools, and conduct situational analyses. I-TECH is also part of the team providing technical guidance on development of the strategic plan for 2021-2025.

In addition to contributing to national strategy updates, I-TECH is working with MOH to ensure same-day treatment or follow-up for all pre-cancerous lesions found among women screened.

Expanding Cervical Cancer Screening in Zimbabwe

I-TECH began the expansion of cervical cancer screening for women living with HIV aged 25-49 in Zimbabwe in 2019. I-TECH initially identified a provisional list of 89 sites for the implementation of visual inspection with acetic acid and cerviography (VIAC). The team then recruited, trained, and deployed dedicated VIAC nurses to 29 sites. Additionally, in an effort to improve service coverage in hard to reach areas without the necessary equipment, district teams carry VIAC equipment to outreach point facilities who have booked client appointments in advance. Random samples of images from clients are anonymized and sent to a gynecologist from the University of Zimbabwe for quality assurance.

Across all facilities, 9,664 HIV-positive women aged 25-49 years have been screened for cervical cancer with 93% testing negative, 6% testing positive for lesions, and 1% having suspected cancer.