For Tina Iroghama Agbonyinma, the news this spring that Nigeria would be introducing Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines in late 2023 meant a complete pivot in her immunization work in Kano state.
While still focusing on overcoming challenges to routine immunization as a Social and Behavior Change Facilitator for UNICEF-led projects, since June she has been part of a nationwide effort to mobilize communities and create awareness about the HPV vaccine and its effectiveness preventing cervical cancer. “HPV introduction began with training of district technical teams, health workers, community leaders and volunteers at the wards and settlements level,” she says. “We are focused on an HPV plan to achieve a successful campaign.”
Critical work in fast-growing Nigeria
The work is critical to Nigeria, which has one of the fastest growing populations in Africa and lies in the sub-Saharan region that suffers the highest global burden of deaths from cervical cancer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 10.000 Nigerian women die of the disease each year, and there is limited screening or treatment.
Tina began preparing for Nigeria’s rollout with two days of state-level training about the vaccine and how to develop daily implementation plans. She then participated in district level planning, where she provided technical assistance in the development of training schedules, dates, venues and assignment of roles and responsibilities. “My role was to facilitate, train and mentor health workers and community leaders who will implement the HPV campaign.”
The targeted age group in Nigeria, says Tina, is adolescent girls ages 9 -14. “Different communication skills and expertise are needed than for childhood immunizations,” she says. The implementation teams conduct comprehensive research work such as surveys “to fully understand the perspective of communities, schools, churches and mosques before passing information that will bring about positive behavior change and acceptance of the HPV vaccine.”
Data from the surveys is validated and used to develop micro plans for each community. As a Sabin Boost member, Tina has participated in community activation training and is conducting advance advocacy visits to school heads, key stakeholders and community influencers to support HPV vaccine introduction. “I am focusing on community mobilization and creating awareness about how the HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer and the safety of the vaccine,” she says. “I tell them this is a golden opportunity for you and all of us to eliminate cervical cancer and reduce mortality of women in our communities.”
Awareness of the HPV vaccine is increasing gradually through regular health talks about the vaccine during routine immunization sessions and the advance community outreach. “Since this is my first work on HPV vaccinations, I am passionate and committed to ensure the campaign is successful, with every community fully in support of the new vaccine,” she says. “No community or parents want to witness adolescent girls suffer from cervical cancer at any time in their future.”
This article was originally published by Sabin Vaccine Institute on 21 August 2023.