On World Cancer Day 2022, we reflect on the power of media and storytelling to improve girls’ knowledge of cervical cancer and break down the barriers girls face to the HPV vaccine in Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Reports show a woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes, with 90% of deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

HPV vaccination has been a game-changer in reducing cervical cancer rates in women globally. But many girls are not getting the HPV vaccine, even when it is available, due to stigma, myths, misinformation and many other reasons.

In 2016, Girl Effect partnered with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to tackle this. Together, we aimed to improve girls’ understanding of cervical cancer and drive uptake for the HPV vaccine using the power of storytelling and media to reach girls at scale.

Understanding the problem

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a group of viruses commonly spread through sex. It’s highly transmissible. Most adults will get it at some point in their lives regardless of where they live.

But unlike other sexually transmitted infections, HPV can lead to cancer. For girls and women, this matters because virtually all cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and where you live can have an impact on your health outcomes.

Girls and women in LMICs are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer, in part because access to, understanding and distribution of the HPV vaccine is lower in LMICs. As a result, there is less uptake.

For example, in Ethiopia, a lack of reliable infrastructure in rural areas means many girls living there have limited channels through which to learn about cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine.

But storylines in our popular Yegna TV show, which has captivated an audience of over 9.8 million, provide girls across the country with crucial information, equipping them with knowledge to take action.

“I’ll always remember the episode when Lomi’s grandmother died. She had cervical cancer…It broke my heart,” says Beza, a 14-year-old Yegna TV viewer from Ethiopia.

“I saw Lomi write that magazine on how others can avoid the cancer, and I felt hopeful. It inspired me to talk to my friends about why we shouldn’t miss the HPV vaccine because it can save our lives.”

Powerful and emotive storylines like these, are inspiring girls to take control of their health. For instance, girls who watched Yegna TV drama in Ethiopia had greater intention to vaccinate than those who had not (70% of viewers compared to 43% of non-viewers).

Similarly, in Tanzania and Malawi, there are gaps in girls’ knowledge about cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine, and it can be hard to reach girls once they have left school.

By creating stories about cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine through media girls are already using, such as TV, radio and print, we can reach girls at scale with this life-saving information.

In Malawi, for example, this included a highly visual Zathu magazine that girls could read with their parents, caregivers and friends. Readers of the magazine are 34% more likely to believe the HPV vaccine does not lead to infertility.

And in Tanzania, girls shared what they had learnt about the HPV vaccine with others after listening to girl-to-girl conversations in our Tujibebe radio drama, which reaches an estimated 1.7 million girls. 52% of girls who listen to the Tujibebe radio show said they were more likely to know about the HPV vaccine (compared to 9% who don’t listen).

“I have learnt about HPV and now I can also go and spread the word to my other friends who will also learn how to protect themselves,” said Adimu, a girl from Tanzania.

Tackling myths and misinformation

Harmful myths and misinformation can also prevent girls from getting vaccinated. For example in Rwanda, the HPV vaccine is widely available, but there are widespread rumours and myths about it.

One of our Ni Nyampinga consumers in Rwanda, Marie Paul, aged 24, says, “When I was 12, I received the HPV vaccine just like most girls my age in Rwanda. The day after we got the first dose, my classmates started spreading rumours about the vaccine that they had heard from their families and communities.”

“Every person I told about getting vaccinated said I wouldn’t have kids. I got scared and wondered if it was true,” explains Marie Paul.

This is where our trusted “Aunty” figure, Baza Shangazi, comes in – helping to bust myths and build girls’ trust in the vaccine by providing credible advice to them.

“Baza Shangazi told all Ni Nyampingas to receive the HPV vaccine and I trust what she tells girls,” explains Carine, another Ni Nyampinga consumer in Rwanda.

Working towards a cervical cancer-free future

Left unchecked, the barriers girls face to understanding cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine can lead them to think the disease and treatment available is not relevant or important to them.

But girls have the best chance at protecting themselves from the disease in later life if they learn about cervical cancer and the HPV at an early age.

To achieve the cervical cancer-free future many think is within our reach, we must keep empowering girls with the information, advice and support they need, on the platforms and channels girls know, trust and love.