Case Study: Preventing Cancer With a Vaccine - Canada vs Rwanda
Now that you’ve learned about some of the challenges with global inequality, you might think that these issues only happen in other countries. While it’s true that there are millions of children around the world who can’t get vaccinated, it also happens in Canada too. It is truly a global problem, and it’s important to remember that.
Even though Canada is one of the richest countries in the world (and we aren’t in a warzone!), not every child gets vaccinated.
To better understand how this happens, let’s look at an example about a vaccine that prevents many types of cancers.
To start, you’ll first need to know a little bit about cervical cancer. About 1 in 150 women in Canada will get cervical cancer in their lifetime. Across the world it’s one of the most common cancers among women. However, this isn't just a concern for women. The main cause of cervical cancer can also cause throat cancer, mouth cancer and other cancers – all of which affect men. It’s not a very pleasant thought, but that is part of the problem. We need to know these things to stay safe.
Luckily we know the main causes of cervical (and other) cancers: human papillomavirus, or better known as HPV. Although most HPV infections will not cause permanent harm, it can sometimes turn into life-threatening cancerous cells.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about HPV is how common it is. About 75% of sexually active Canadians will get at least one HPV infection at some point. Think of it another way: three out of four Canadians will probably get HPV infection at some point in their lives.
The good news is that there is a HPV vaccine to protect against these cancers and Canadian students around your age receive it for free!
Compared to many other countries, Canada has enough funding to provide access to healthcare/clinics for most people. Canada also can provide access to education for most people too. Canada is also not a warzone. When you think of all these things, you probably don’t imagine that Canada has any challenges related to childhood immunization.
But there is more to the story. Let’s now compare Canada to Rwanda.
You may not be familiar with the East African country of Rwanda, but they face many challenges related to inequality. Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world, where most people make less than $1.25 per day. Compared to Canada, there isn’t enough funding for education, roads, or clinics. Rwanda also survived a terrible civil war not too long ago. Even though Rwanda has all these challenges, the HPV vaccine is available for free. This is because of the great work by healthcare workers, the Rwandan government, and global organizations that support vaccines (such as Gavi that you learned about in lesson 5).
Now let’s compare Canada and Rwanda. Which country do you think has more people vaccinated against HPV (out of all the people who should get it)?
Here are the HPV vaccine numbers:
In Rwanda, vaccination coverage is at 93%.
In Canada, vaccination coverage is about 70%.
Does this surprise you?
Canada isn’t the only developed country with these low vaccination numbers though. The United States is at about 60% HPV coverage. Denmark is at 40%, Ireland around 51%. Japan is less than 1%! (based on statistics available in 2018).
All of these developed countries have one thing in common: the widespread fear of the HPV vaccine due to misinformation. When it comes to the HPV vaccine, there is a lot of incorrect information on the internet. Many inaccurate websites falsely claim that HPV vaccine can cause paralysis or even death! It can be very scary to read these myths, especially if they also include stories from people who think that vaccines caused them harm.
It’s not the first time that there has been inaccurate information about vaccines. For example, did you know that people used to think that vaccines would make you sprout a cow head from your arm? Here’s an illustration from back then:
It might sound and look silly now, but at one point many people really believed this. If you think you couldn’t be fooled by such a silly idea, remember the Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) example in a previous lesson! If water can sound extremely toxic and dangerous, imagine how easy it is to make vaccines sound dangerous. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the information you’ve read is true or false (but we’ll be teaching you how to identify true and false information in the next section, “Evaluating Sources”).
Worldwide, there have been over 280 million doses of the HPV vaccine given, and it’s been proven to be safe and effective. There have also been years of research by thousands of scientists that say that the vaccine is safe.
So how does Rwanda do so well when Canada and other countries are struggling against bad information and myths?
The key is education.
The best way to fight misinformation is to provide accurate information through trusted sources. This is where Rwanda has been much smarter than Canada. Everyone from teachers, religious leaders, community leaders, health workers, and politicians all worked together to educate everyone in Rwanda about the HPV vaccine. They made sure that teachers taught students about HPV, and health workers educated community groups about the importance of the vaccine. They made sure that people were able to ask experts about HPV vaccine myths, which helped everyone learn scientifically proven information. At the same time, different branches of government joined efforts to make sure everyone was able to get the vaccine. Watch the video about the Rwandan vaccination campaign to learn more:
What are some things that Rwanda did that we could also do in Canada?