Vanessa, 9, receives her HPV vaccination at school. Chiradzulu District, Malawi. © MSF/Nadia Marini

Photo story: Preventing cervical cancer in Malawi

In late January 2020, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) implemented an HPV vaccination campaign for 8,500 nine-year-old girls in the Chiradzulu district of Malawi.  

Cervical cancer is largely preventable, and yet it is fatal for a disproportionate number of women in low- and middle-income countries. Particularly in sub-saharan Africa, cervical cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related mortality in women. 

Effective prevention


The most effective prevention is vaccination against a common cause of cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common, sexually transmitted infection. Vaccinating girls against HPV protects them from the strongest strains of the infection which, if persistent, can develop into cervical cancer. 

MSF has campaigned for many years to ensure vaccinations are affordable and available to all. However, the people who need vaccinations most are often the ones who miss out, as is the case in many of the places where MSF works. By supporting vaccination campaigns for girls in countries where the number of new cases and deaths are highest, we can reduce the number of lives lost to this cancer. 

A day in the program


In late January 2020, MSF ran an eight-day HPV vaccination campaign in the Chiradzulu district of Malawi in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. Here, cervical cancer accounts for 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in women. The campaign provided vaccinations to more than 8,500 nine-year-old girls across 100 schools and 17 health centres. 

One of these schools was Lisawo Primary School, in rural Malawi. Here, we give you an inside look at this program and introduce you to some of the women of the future receiving their vaccination. 

MSF health promotion materials in Chirazulu advertise the upcoming vaccination program for girls in the local language of Chichewa.

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Tifera, a MSF interpreter, assists the girls to get in line as they arrive for their vaccination at Lisawo Primary School. MSF/Nadia Marini
Tifera explains to the girls what is happening today and answers their questions. MSF/Nadia Marini

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While they wait, the girls excitedly read more about cervical cancer and its prevention. MSF/Nadia Marini
Keeping vaccinations cold and ready-to-use can be a difficult operation. MSF’s team must coordinate carefully to keep vaccines in the right condition for use wherever they are needed. MSF/Nadia Marini

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Ivy (left) and Love (right) wait to receive their vaccination. Each girl has an HPV vaccination report and ID card, used to keep track of their vaccination schedule and record consent from parents. MSF/Nadia Marini
A young girl receives a single dose of HPV vaccine. MSF/Nadia Marini

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Shila, 9, is vaccinated against HPV. MSF/Nadia Marini
At the end of the session, the girls head back to class, stopping to wave and play along the way. MSF/Nadia Marini

By ensuring HPV vaccination for girls in rural and isolated areas, MSF is helping to reduce the number of women who may eventually be lost to cervical cancer.