Prior to her mother’s death, Miriam had lost an uncle to mouth cancer in 2000 and later on an aunt to cervical cancer in the same year her mother died; and an uncle to prostate cancer two years later, in 2018. Another uncle is battling the same cancer.
Despite the family history, the 36-year-old mother of two girls is yet to heed the doctor’s advice. Further calls to have her 10-year-old daughter take the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer have fallen on deaf ears.
Dr. Riaz Kasmani, an oncologist in Mombasa County explains that cervical cancer is the leading cause of death in women in Kenya, with nine women dying of the disease every day. It is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus, a common viral infection of the reproductive tract. Although it is commonly believed that HPV affects women who are sexually active, it can affect both men and women who are not sexually active, as well as children and young people. “If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the easier cancers to treat.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the HPV vaccination program in 2019 targeting approximately 800,000 10-year-old girls. However, the program is facing a low uptake of the second and third dosage of the vaccine, due to a number of factors, such as lack of awareness, partner disapproval among parents and disinformation campaigns spreading through social media.
Miriam, despite having lost so many family members to cancer is one of those who saw the posts. “I have seen posts that say the vaccine is either a family planning scheme or a plan to slowly eliminate people. You never know.”
Furthermore, she questioned why the vaccine is given to girls aged 10 years only yet every woman is equally exposed to the disease. ‘‘I will not allow my daughter to get the vaccine because I do not know its long-term effects”.
The misconception that HPV is only transmitted through sexual contact is possibly a main reason behind the disinformation campaigns against the vaccine by various groups
One such campaign is a web archive of a post shared by Samantha Graziosi on August 8th 2019 on Facebook. The post is of an article published on Vactruth.com on June 7th 2019. The article titled ‘The Vaccine that Never Should Have Been Approved’ was authored by Michelle Goldstein.
Goldstein is a celebrity Yoga instructor in America who earns a living from challenging mainstream medicine and selling alternative cures. She has no medical qualifications and her views are not backed up by credible data. She runs a website and a Facebook page called Holistic Health to Go. Her article raises a number of issues faulting the HPV Vaccine Gardasil that came into the market in 2006.
It also claims that “the HPV vaccination has caused tremendous health damage for young women and men worldwide” and that “HPV vaccinations are responsible for debilitating auto-immune disorders, paralysis, cervical cancer, infertility, and death.” This is in reference to an article published on an earlier date (24 March 2016) on the same website by the same author.
The article also cites sanevax.org and children’s health defense org as some of the sources supporting her claims. However, the data sourced from sanevax.org showing “alarming percentage increase in HPV Vaccine adverse injuries and deaths…” are data sourced from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) which contains unconfirmed reports of such events implying inaccurate data since VAERS contains reports that could have been made by anybody with whatever vested interest.
Graziosi, who shared the article on Facebook, continues to post anti-vaccine sentiments some of which link to a group of anti-vaccine proponents operating under the hashtag #holdtheline.
The other source is Children’s health defense org, which the article heavily cites. Children’s health defense org is an organization owned and run by Robert F. Kennedy Junior who is a renowned antivaxxer and whose claims published on the organization’s website have been debunked before.
He is also listed among the disinformation dozen, a group of 12 people whom research showed were responsible for most of the Covid-19 misinformation online, in a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Children’s Health Defense, chaired by Kennedy, is a front for anti-vaccination content and was reported by The Center for Countering Digital Hate to be making millions from its activities, including “federally backed small business loans.”
The FDA, the organization that approves drugs safety in the U.S.A, in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reviewed all claims of the ‘danger’ posed by the HPV Vaccine Gardasil and gave the following summary: “Based on the review of available information by FDA and CDC, Gardasil continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks.”
The article by Michelle Goldstein, shared on Facebook by Samantha Graziosi is laden with hearsay, citations of unverified data and questionable sources as well as subjective sentiments hence clearly not factual.
The pain of cancer
“Such campaigns are spread by people who have not experienced the pain of cancer,” said Miriam Waithira, a resident of Nakuru County. The 45-year-old mother of two successfully battled cervical cancer in 2018 and does not take lightly the cruelty of the disease.
Cancer is a costly disease to treat and manage. Many people die due to lack of funds and the necessary medical equipment required in the treatment of the disease.
One session of chemotherapy costs Kshs 25,000 to 35,000 depending on the dosage, while radiotherapy costs between Kshs 5,000 to 10,000 per dosage. Waithira went through six rounds of chemotherapy and twenty-five sessions of radiotherapy.
“I cannot explain the pain I experienced. It is especially stressful when one cannot afford the recommended diet to help manage the disease. The government should work harder to demystify the fear and suspicion about the HPV vaccine, to prevent more women from suffering in future.”
Featured image source: nature.com
This piece is part of the Institute For War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and Africa Resilience Network programme – building a network of journalists, activists and analysts to identify and expose disinformation.