Our plan to eliminate cervical cancer in PNG and Vanuatu
Thanks to advances in cancer research, and successful vaccination and screening programs, Australia is on track to be the first country to eliminate cervical cancer by as early as 2028.
However, nearby countries in the Western Pacific are not yet benefiting from these advances.
In 2021, Cancer Council NSW committed to supporting cervical cancer elimination in PNG and Vanuatu. We entered a formal agreement with the Minderoo Foundation’s Collaborate Against Cancer initiative to head up a project called Eliminate Cervical Cancer in the Western Pacific (ECCWP).
Through the generosity of an $8.64 million philanthropic grant from the Minderoo Foundation, the project is working towards setting the Western Pacific region on a sustainable pathway towards the elimination of cervical cancer, initially through capacity building in the Western Highlands of PNG and Vanuatu.
Consistent with the WHO global strategy for the elimination of cervical cancer, the project is focused on introducing effective and sustainable vaccinations, screening and treatment in local communities.
Here are four ways the project has already made considerable progress:
1. Increasing HPV vaccinations
women’s lives are expected to be saved in PNG alone.
The first prong of the ECCWP project aims to support the development of an effective, equitable and sustainable HPV vaccination program for girls aged 9-14 years old in PNG and Vanuatu.
So far, the PNG ECCWP team has successfully gained government funding for a new health program, which will roll out HPV vaccination in schools.
In Vanuatu, parts of the ECCWP project were initially disrupted by the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak. Planning and stakeholder engagement continued where possible, but the delay also enabled reporting and analysis of clinical trials data on a one-dose HPV vaccine regimen. The result was the Vanuatu government supporting the introduction from February 2023 of a schools-based HPV immunisation program, built on the one-done vaccine, with greater potential than alternative models for reaching the WHO 90% vaccine coverage target, sooner. It is a great example of the project being leveraged by local partners for sustainable long-term policy and practice towards the elimination of cervical cancer.
In September 2022 the Vanuatu government agreed to move forward with a 1-dose HPV vaccine schedule for girls aged 9-13 years old, as well as collaborate to share information and resources on the implementation of vaccine and screening programs. This will ensure their program develops in a coordinated fashion.
The ECCWP project teams have also begun developing equitable HPV based cervical screening programs for women aged 30-54 years old in PNG and Vanuatu. They have worked with international partners to secure medical equipment and supplies for building capacity to make the screening part of the project possible.
In alignment with the WHO guidelines for cervical screening in high-burden countries, the project team has also worked closely with local and international experts in cervical cancer control, to develop and finalise new clinical guidelines for cervical screening and cancer prevention in PNG.
Screening in PNG has now begun, with 989 women having taken part in screening as of September 30. Renovations are currently underway to improve screening facilities and mobile clinics to encourage further community support and program participation.
In Vanuatu, the cervical screening program has also started, following renovations of screening facilities and training of staff.
In fact, newly trained staff from VCH (Vila Central Hospital) screened 8 women on 30 September with their data successfully logged into Vanuatu’s canSCREEN registry.
Improving cervical cancer treatment and care programs
In December 2021, the project team hosted two major meetings aimed to strengthen support from high income countries in the region, to broaden access and scale up treatment services for cervical cancer elimination in the Western Pacific region.
In PNG, the project team are developing strategies to increase access to histopathology and treatment services for cervical cancer using the funding and services currently available.
In Vanuatu, the project team met with in-country partners to discuss opportunities for training, with the possibility of collaborative learning between Vanuatu & PNG clinicians as well as more frequent visits by Australian-based gynaecologists.
4. Developing efficient digital infrastructure
A core part of the ECCWP program is setting up an effective, locally adapted vaccination, screening, and treatment registry. The canSCREEN registry has been developed and deployed in select clinics in PNG and Vanuatu.
By creating a database of vaccination, screening and treatment information, appointments and follow ups can be managed effectively.
In PNG, the canSCREEN screening registry went live in May 2022 and is now operational.
In Vanuatu, initial users have already been trained and data entry began in early October 2022.
Year 1 of the project has been a success, with the pilot model of the Eliminate Cervical Cancer in the Western Pacific project set to be expanded in all provinces of PNG at the conclusion of the 5-year project.
By the time this takes place, 150,000 women’s lives are expected to be saved in PNG alone.