WOMEN’S health programmes are generally reduced to family planning, pre- and post-natal services. Consequently, concerns regarding the sexual and reproductive health of women remain unattended. An increasing number of obstetric fistula and cervical and breast cancer corroborates the proposition. The March for Mother, an organisation campaigning for public awareness of cancer, at a programme marking National Cervical Cancer Awareness Day, expressed concern about the worrying increase in cervical cancer. Oncologists at the event said that 8,068 new patients are diagnosed with cervical cancer a year, and at least 5,214 of the cases are fatal. Persistent infection by human papillomavirus increases the risk of cervical cancer while the vaccination of girls and women before they become sexually active could prevent the disease. In 2018, the government announced the inclusion of HPV vaccination in its immunisation programme but did little to implement the decision. The GAVI Alliance provides HPV vaccines free for developing countries but Bangladesh chose not to seek support from the alliance. The government’s effort has so far been episodic when an urgent action for an early diagnosis and a massive campaign is needed to prevent the incidence of cervical cancer.
Oncologists and public health experts terms death from cervical cancer as unfortunate as an early diagnosis can cure and timely vaccination can prevent the disease. An HPV vaccine costs about Tk 390–750 and two doses of it could immunise a girl for the whole life. It is the reductive understanding of women’s health that focuses singularly on family planning and childbirth and leaves a host of other health concerns unattended. Every year, 12,764 women are detected with breast cancer and 6,844 of them die of the disease when 90 per cent of breast cancer patients have the chance to recover with a proper detection and complete treatment. There are 20,000 obstetric fistula patients in Bangladesh and 1,000 new patients are reported every year. Three-fourths of all fistula cases are caused by obstructed labour and commonly associated with neglected, under-attended delivery. It will, therefore, not be mistaken to suggest that the existing programmes to ensure healthy pregnancy and safe childbirth are under-performing as a significant number of women are diagnosed with obstetric fistula.
It is time that the government revisited its programmes to develop a comprehensive health care for women that will ensure healthy pregnancy and safe childbirth and include general sexual health and other gynaecological care. Considering an increased incidence of cancer, the government must equip its health facilities in lower tiers with cancer-screening facilities and oncological care. The health ministry must consider the introduction of HPV vaccination and create awareness at the earliest to prevent the incidence of cervical cancer.
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