Earlier this month, leaders from across Africa convened in Washington for an unprecedented summit on the benefits of deeper economic and social ties between Africa and the U.S. High on the agenda was the importance of investment in women's health, and for good reason.
Women are the backbone of many African communities. Investment in their health is an important step toward the economic and social progress of the next generation of Africans. And giving women the tools and education to safeguard their health is an essential element of that investment. Deb Elam, president of the GE Foundation, summed it up in a twist on an old proverb:
"If you give a woman a fish, she can feed her family. If you teach a woman to fish, she can feed her village. But if you inspire her, empower her, equip her and expand her capacity to fish, she will feed the world."
Expanding the "capacity to fish" in healthcare is most urgent in low-resource countries where women's cancers are growing almost exponentially. Cervical cancer, for example, has become the number one killer of women in Africa, with more than 93,000 cases diagnosed each year. Breast cancer death rates are as high as 41 percent in central sub-Saharan Africa, compared with about 10 percent in Western Europe, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
One reason for these exceedingly high death rates is the lack of access to basic health care, health screenings and treatment. The World Health Organization estimates that fewer than 5 percent of women in low- and middle-income countries get a health screening, even once in a lifetime.
Charity Chipundu of Zambia was one of the women who might still be alive today if she had access to cancer screening and timely treatment. She was diagnosed in 2012 with late stage cervical cancer and traveled 800 miles from her home to receive treatment. Soon after, she became a passionate advocate for cancer education and screening programs in her country. While she was cancer-free for some time, I am sad to say that she passed away last year, leaving behind a loving husband and children. We can't help but believe that the outcome might have been different had Charity and others like her had access to screening and treatment programs that are the norm in wealthier countries.
We've long believed at Susan G. Komen that where you live shouldn't determine whether you live, but we also know that ending cancer on a global scale can't be achieved by a single organization. It requires partnerships among nonprofits, health organizations, corporations and government leaders.
This was the founding principle behind Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon (PRRR), launched three years ago as a collaboration between the George W. Bush Institute, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Susan G. Komen, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Merck, and other public and private partners, with a goal to reduce deaths from breast and cervical cancers in developing nations. PRRR is currently active in five African countries.
Our PRRR experience in just one of those countries -- Zambia -- is encouraging and instructive.
PRRR launched one of its first women's cancer programs in Zambia in 2012. That same year, Komen and Merck, in collaboration with the African Center of Excellence for Women's Cancer Control, established a program to train medical providers and provided funding to establish two breast cancer clinics to follow up on breast abnormalities found in screening.
Komen also funded the establishment of the Cancer Prevention Alliance of Zambia, which convenes breast and cervical cancer advocacy organizations to develop strategies and awareness activities, share best practices and provide training to Zambian nurses.
In just the past two years, more than 82,000 women have been screened for breast and cervical cancer in Zambia, and hundreds of medical providers have been trained. Bolstered by this positive progress, former President George W. Bush announced at the summit that PRRR will go further, and expand women's cancer programs to Ethiopia and Namibia.
This expansion is a vital part of Komen's ultimate goal of ending breast cancer forever -- not just in higher income countries, but everywhere -- and of guiding efforts to prevent and treat cervical and other cancers. In Africa and everywhere we work, progress toward that goal will be guided by our memory of how one woman, Charity Chipundu, not only faced her cancer with courage, but became a fierce advocate for women's health.
We will honor her memory by building upon our existing partnerships, seeking new collaborations, and doing all within our power to ensure that women -- no matter where they live -- have every opportunity for long and fruitful lives.
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