HPV vaccine girl Brazil Pan American Health Organization/Flickr

Stopping Women’s Next Biggest Killer

Great strides are being made in reducing maternal deaths in poor countries, but those gains could be undone by a new threat to women’s health. For the first time, the number of cervical cancer deaths per year is poised to outstrip the total caused by childbirth.

GENEVA – For women, the act of bringing life into this world has historically meant risking their own lives, with the real prospect of death during childbirth. But, though great strides are being made in reducing maternal deaths in poor countries, those gains could be undone by a growing threat to women’s health. For the first time, the number of deaths caused by cervical cancer every year is poised to outstrip the total caused by childbirth.

The trend partly reflects the success of efforts to reduce maternal deaths. Since 1990, the number of women dying as a result of childbirth has been nearly halved, to 289,000 per year. Over the same period, however, annual deaths from cervical cancer have increased by almost 40%, to 266,000. Even as better standards of care continue to cut maternal mortality, cervical cancer deaths are expected to rise further. By 2035, the disease is expected to cause 416,000 women to die slowly and painfully every year – virtually all of them in developing countries (mostly Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia).

The tragedy is that these deaths are almost entirely preventable. Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, coupled with screening and treatment, could prevent the vast majority of cervical cancer cases. But almost 90% of the women who die from cervical cancer are in developing countries, where, for too many of them, screening services are unavailable, and treatment even less so.

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