CITY OF STO. TOMAS, Batangas — CERVICAL cancer is the fourth most common cancer affecting women globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2020, the WHO recorded approximately 604,000 new cases of cervical cancer, on top of 342,000 reported deaths due to the disease. About 90% of these new cases and deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, including the Philippines.
In the Philippines, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer afflicting women, with 37.8 million Filipinas at risk of the disease, according to data from the ICO/ARC HPV Information Centre. According to the WHO, 99% of cervical cancer cases have been linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV).
HPV is a widespread virus primarily transmitted through sexual contact. While 90% of HPV infections have no symptoms and clear up eventually, persistent HPV infections can cause cervical cancer in women, according to the WHO.
While these statistics are alarming, there is still hope: cervical cancer is a vaccine-preventable disease. And if the world aims to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030, all countries must work together to fully vaccinate 90% of girls against HPV before age 15. Enforcing school-based immunization programs will help countries meet this global goal.
School-based immunization safeguards against HPV infection. In a multi-stakeholder collaboration, the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Provincial Government of Batangas, in partnership with MSD in the Philippines and the Philippine Obstetrical and Gynecological Society (POGS), launched a school-based HPV immunization program at Sto. Tomas Central Elementary School through an event titled “Sa Aking Paglaki, Walang HPV” on November 18, 2022.
The event aligns with DepEd Memorandum No. 173, series of 2017, also known as the “Inclusion of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccination in School-Based Immunization Program”. This memorandum supports implementing the School-Based Immunization Program (SIP) of the DOH, one of the national government’s critical interventions to protect school-aged children against vaccine-preventable diseases.
The DOH introduced the national HPV vaccination program in public health facilities in 2015, made possible through Department Memorandum No. 2015-0316, also known as “Guidelines in the Implementation of HPV Vaccination”. Initially a community-based immunization program, the HPV vaccination program targeted girls aged 9 to 10.
However, in 2017, the DOH, in collaboration with DepEd, expanded the program and shifted to a school-based immunization program targeting female students aged 9 to 14. This age group benefits the most from the HPV vaccination program as they are not yet exposed to HPV, which usually results from sexual activity. Securing immunization at this age helps protect them against HPV infection, cervical cancer, and other HPV-related diseases.
For Academic Year 2022 to 2023, the DOH has procured 1.2 million doses of HPV vaccines, which will benefit 600,000 students nationwide. With the return to face-to-face classes nationwide, it is both timely and prudent to reinstate the school-based HPV vaccination program to safeguard students from HPV infection and reduce their risks for cervical cancer and other diseases caused by HPV.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person or face-to-face classes have been suspended since 2020. As such, the DOH also put school-based immunizations on hold and shifted its immunization strategies to include vaccination stations at permanent health facilities, temporary vaccination stations at multi-purpose town halls, and door-to-door vaccinations. The return to face-to-face classes ushers the return to school-based immunization.
Strengthening collaboration among different stakeholder groups. The launch of the HPV immunization program in Sto. Tomas, Batangas, serves as a prime example of how multiple stakeholder groups can work together to implement a school-based immunization program effectively. The program launch was led by Sto. Tomas Mayor Arth Jhun A. Marasigan and Vice Mayor Catherine Juarigue-Perez, DepEd Batangas School Division Superintendent Neil G. Angeles, as well as City Health Officer Arnielyn Marasigan-Aguirre.
Key members of the local community, notably the parents and guardians of vaccine beneficiaries, also attended the event and participated in the health and disease awareness lecture led by Dr. Jennifer T. Co from the Philippine Obstetrical and Gynecological Society (POGS).
More than 300 people attended the event, including 150 female Grade 4 students from Sto. Tomas Central Elementary School immunized against HPV during the ceremonial vaccination, accompanied by their parents and guardians.
Through the “Kalasag ng Kalusugan” commitment exercise, representatives from different stakeholder groups also pledged their continued support to public health. “Kalasag ng Kalusugan,” which translates to “health shield,” reflects the collective commitment of the local and the national government to strengthen the public’s “health shield” through immunization.
Learn more about HPV and how to prevent HPV infection through vaccination. Ask your school nurse about the DOH’s school-based HPV immunization program. Together, let us amplify the value of immunization as a basic right of every child and how this vital early healthcare intervention can propel them toward a healthier and brighter future.|-BNN