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Irene Natividad Headshot

Lifting the Burden

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Imagine if businesses - and business leaders - could help beat cancer. It may seem an unlikely match, but I believe they can.

My organization, Global Summit of Women, and I have taken on the challenge of cervical cancer based on one key fact: cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable. And yet it continues to strike at least 500,000 women each year, killing more than 270,000.

To me, as president of the largest economic forum for women, these figures are outrageous. Women are at the heart of our global economy. Whether they are tilling a field in Uganda, running a Laundromat in Paris, or leading a Fortune 500 company in California, our economies are only as strong and healthy as they are. Global economic growth, especially in developing countries, depends on empowering women to control their own economic futures. Without health, this is impossible.

This is why thousands of leaders from corporate, government, and non-profit sectors are joining me this month at the 2010 Global Summit of Women in Beijing, and lending support to our Global Consortium of Women to End Cervical Cancer, the closing event of our three-day gathering. Year after year we make it our mission to ensure that women leaders spread the word about cervical cancer prevention, focusing on efforts to increase access to the screening and vaccines necessary to make cervical cancer the first cancer the world gets rid of for good.

The alternative is dire: If we fail to take real steps toward preventing cervical cancer, the number of worldwide diagnoses could reach 700,000 annually by 2020. Most of these will be in developing countries, where 80 percent of cases occur. Cervical cancer tends to strike women in their prime, and because so many cases in developing countries go undetected until they're too severe to treat, the toll cervical cancer takes on economies is astonishing.

These figures are particularly egregious because cervical cancer prevention does not depend on future technological discoveries; we already have everything we need to do the job. The cause of cervical cancer is known: human papillomavirus (HPV). Screening for HPV can help identify women who are already at high risk for cancer, allowing them to be treated early as necessary. Vaccinating girls against HPV can help prevent cervical disease as today's young generation become women. Together, these tools form a powerful defense arsenal.

Even more promising for developing countries, researchers are creating a new HPV test that doesn't require running water, electricity, or highly trained laboratory professionals. It would allow women to be screened and, if necessary, begin treatment on the same day. Technologies that can help broaden access to women in low-resource, rural areas promise to bring about a turning point in the areas hit hardest by cervical cancer.

So if we agree that wiping out cervical cancer makes sense, and technology isn't the problem, then what's stopping us? The global community needs to prioritize the cause, and global business leaders, particularly women, can be the key to making this happen. We need to recognize that cervical cancer is not merely a health issue, but an economic issue that impacts development enormously. As such, governments and donors must commit the funding necessary to ensure that infrastructure for implementing screening and vaccination technologies is available and affordable. Organizations must encourage sustainable public health programs to reach all segments of a country's population. All women must take action to protect themselves and their daughters.

Cervical cancer is one issue on which we can make unprecedented progress now and leave a legacy of a cervical cancer-free world. Over the past few years, groups such as the European Women's Management Development Network, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women and the Inter-American Commission of Women have all been a part of the Summit's Consortium of Women to End Cervical Cancer. This year, the All China Women's Federation, the First Lady of Tanzania, and Sun Network co-owner Yang Lan are joining our call to action. We all have an extraordinary opportunity to make cervical cancer history, and we must not let it pass us by.

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