Gabrielle Fitzgerald if the Director of Program Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She travelled to Myanmar last week with Population Services International, an NGO that has worked in Myanmar for nearly 20 years. Dr. Aye Aye Mu is a health provider in the SUN Quality Health Network, a health franchise run by PSI.
Dr. Aye Aye Mu runs a thriving medical practice in the North Okkalapa Township in Myanmar’s capital of Yangon. Her office can be found after winding through labyrinthine, rutted roads, filled with puddles from the morning’s torrential rain. She gave up her middle-class existence to move with her family to this neighborhood, so she could be closer to the people that needed her most.
One of those people is Ma Ni, who is dying of cervical cancer on the floor of her two-room home near Dr. Aye Aye Mu’s office. Dying of any kind of cancer anywhere in the world is sad, but this case is particularly heart-rending because cervical cancer is so easily preventable.
Cervical cancer is the leading cause of death among young women in the developing world. In some countries, a vaccine is available that dramatically reduces women’s chances of getting the disease. However, where the vaccine is not available, there is a highly effective process called “screen and treat” which has a great track record of success at a very low cost.
Screen and treat is a 20 minute process that can be carried out by a trained health worker. A quick screening test is performed and if pre-cancerous cells are detected, a simple procedure instantly kills pre-cancerous cells. The test is made of vinegar – the same kind you have in your kitchen cabinet – and the entire process costs less than a dollar.
Ma Ni’s sad story has a silver lining.
Her daughter learned about screen and treat, and has convinced all the women in her neighborhood to visit Dr. Aye Aye Mu to get tested. And while the vaccine is not yet available in Myanmar, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations recently announced that the price of the vaccine has been reduced, and it will be rolled out in eight countries later this year. Once both vaccination and screening are available, it is believed that cervical cancer is fully preventable.
So while my thoughts and prayers are with Ma Ni, my hope and aspiration is that Dr. Aye Aye Mu and others like her will be able to ensure far fewer women will have to suffer with cervical cancer in the future.