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MTV Africa’s Vanessa Mdee: ‘This is a new dawn for young African women’

Our guest blogger today is the MTV Africa VJ, singer and activist from Tanzania, Vanessa Mdee.  Writing as an ambassador for the GAVI Alliance, her post celebrates the recent news that the HPV vaccine to protect women and girls from cervical cancer is set to drop in price for 50 of the world’s poorest countries. 

I’m trying to think of the first time my mother had ‘The Talk’ (yes the birds and the bees talk) with me. The talk that I’d heard my friends refer to as the most embarrassing moment of their lives, the talk that officially indicted you into teen-hood, the talk that signified your maturity – your parents decided you were old enough to speak of natural human interaction between a man and a woman. I’m still eagerly awaiting this talk.

Now don’t be fooled, my mother knows all too well that I’m aware of physical interaction. Not because I told her but because she’s got that sixth sense like all mothers do.  Besides, I am of age and slightly adventurous (for lack of a better word).

I gather I never put my parents in a place where they felt the need to have this conversation with me. I did after all grow up in a Muslim turned every Sunday church-going Roman Catholic home – where I obviously wasn’t having sex. My parents were right – not because I was holier than the next but the mere thought of them finding out crippled me. You see, growing up in an African home as exposed and worldly as my upbringing was, meant certain things were not discussed. This remains the case to date. My line of work has allowed me to converse intimately with young African women and girls, and their stories are similar. Sex talk is a no go.

When I started DynamitesMission – my awareness blog sponsored by UNAIDS and MTV’s Staying Alive – I wanted to lend my voice and extend my ear to the streets. I was learning about grassroots organisations and their efforts to educate their communities. I was moved and in turn spoke from my perspective – pretty layman but clear to other laymen.

A year in, I get a BBM from one of my best friends Michelle. It read, ‘ You’re trying to tell me that above all the heartache we take from these men, they also pass HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer) to us?’ – I chuckled and said ‘ Yes Elle, they do – talk about short end of the stick’.  Many women are unaware of cervical cancer and HPV, mostly about how exposed we are to the virus through our everyday interaction.

My first personal encounter with cervical cancer was in my early teens. My aunt was diagnosed with it  at a very late stage and when her health deteriorated I remember wondering what she had done to deserve this and why the meds weren’t working. I kept asking my father – why she wasn’t getting better. Only to properly understand the severity as she passed away after being bed ridden for two weeks.

When a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer in Tanzania there is a 70% chance she will not survive. Experts agree that the low survival rate is due to late diagnosis and treatment by a healthcare provider. It wasn’t until I was approached by GAVI that I found out that there now is a vaccine and that if administered early (before young women become sexually active) then we can ensure a brighter future for our women and decrease the numbers of cervical cancer cases.

Young women need to be aware of these opportunities that can be availed but most importantly the knowledge of HPV and cervical cancer – I truly believe these formative years will define their sexual reproductive health and nurture a generation of healthier women. It starts with open communication about sex and sexual reproductive health.

2013 is the beginning of a dramatic shift in women’s health. A record low price for a HPV vaccine has been negotiated by GAVI  for the 50+ countries eligible for GAVI support (including my home country, Tanzania), opening the door for millions of girls in the world’s poorest countries to be immunized against a devastating women’s cancer.

This not only is the beginning of a shift in the overall eradication of cervical cancer but a new dawn for young African women around the continent. An opportunity that myself and many other young African women did not have.

It breaks my heart to see lives cut short due to ailments. In Africa these losses happen often and deprive our societies. It’s about time proper healthcare is administered for all, especially the future generation. GAVI is making this possible by pioneering the administration of the HPV vaccine. Giving my younger sisters a chance – that’s one less killer to worry about.

Find out more about the great news on the price drop for HPV vaccines on the GAVI Alliance website.

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