Why so many people are still dying of cervical cancer, and what Rotary is doing about it

Women diagnosed with cervical cancer are almost twice as likely to die than those diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet cervical cancer is a disease that is preventable and treatable. What’s going on?

About 90 percent of the women killed by cervical cancer — more than 340,000 in 2020 — live in low- and middle-income countries, where access to prevention, screening, and treatment is severely limited. And reproductive care remains a taboo topic, even when it means people are dying as a result.

  • 116

    Global grants awarded to fund cervical cancer projects since 2014

  • 91%

    Share of cervical cancer deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where access to prevention, screening, and treatment is severely limited

  • 604,127

    Number of people diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2020

The Rotary Foundation has awarded more than $10.3 million in global grant funding for cervical cancer projects since 2014, and other Rotary projects, such as an initiative in Alabama, have tackled this issue outside of global grant funding. In addition, $2 million was awarded to United to End Cervical Cancer in Egypt as part of the third annual Programs of Scale competition. The Foundation awards these grants to evidence-based programs that align with at least one of Rotary’s causes and are ready for expansion to create larger-scale change.

The four-year program in and around Cairo will vaccinate more than 30,000 girls ages 9 to 15 to prevent infection with the human papillomavirus, which causes the disease. It will provide cancer screenings for 10,000 women — allowing for early detection and treatment — and launch a public awareness campaign to reach 4 million people, helping address cultural misconceptions that may deter people from seeking care.

For Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in January, we examined the state of the disease around the world, and what Rotary members are doing about it.

Your Foundation money at work

Countries and geographical areas where global grants have funded cervical cancer projects in the past 10 years.

How HPV infection can lead to cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus, a group of more than 200 related viruses, some of which are sexually transmitted. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives; most of these infections are harmless, but some high-risk HPV viruses can progress to cancer. HPV vaccinations before a young person becomes sexually active can prevent infection, and therefore cervical cancer. The cancer develops slowly, with five to 20 years between the first cellular changes to the actual development of cancer. Screening for abnormal cells and treatment when necessary can stop the disease from progressing and save lives.

  1. Normal cervical cells -- Vaccination opportunity: 11–12 years old

  2. HPV Infection (Most infections do not turn into precancers) -- Screening opportunity 21–65 years old

  3. Precancers (May still go back to normal)

  4. Cervical Cancer

This story originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.