I haven’t been in the States during International Women’s Day in quite a while. Unless things have drastically changed, I can’t remember it being a big deal there. In Africa things are different. Currently I’m in Western Uganda gearing up to photograph a Women’s Day march and rally as part of a larger assignment for ActionAid. This coming Tuesday marks the 100th annual celebration of the event. Before I get to that however, detailing my previous assignment with the Uganda Women’s Health Initiative couldn’t be more appropriate for the occasion.
One of UWHI’s main programs is to deal with the diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer, which is the leading cause of death for women in Uganda outside the child bearing age bracket. A joint study by the Uganda Ministry of Health and PATH found that 67% of bed occupancy in the gynecological ward of Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest, is of cervical cancer cases and 70% of the women who die in this ward are cervical cancer patients.
Above, Mrs. Christine Babirye, diagnosed with cervical cancer last year, now receives radiation therapy at Mulago Hospital in Kampala. The machine, procured with the help of the Uganda Women’s Health Initiative, is one of only a few in East Africa and the only such one in Uganda. Patients travel from Rwanda, Southern Sudan, and the DRC to receive radiation therapy here at Mulago.
Even in developed countries, treatment options for advanced stages of cancer are extremely limited. Consequently, UWHI puts most of its efforts into screening and prevention. The organization works out of two separate clinics in Kampala to provide free breast and cervical cancer screenings each weekday to any woman who walks in. Nurses and midwives of the Uganda Women’s Health Initiative also have the capacity for treating precancerous lesions at the clinics. They have supplied training and equipment to another such clinic in the eastern town of Mbale.
Women whose cancer has passed all early treatment options must be referred to Mulago in Kampala. Because of the burden of transport and being away from their homes and families, some women never seek treatment for their cancer and inevitably succumb to it. For those who can make the journey to the capital, the Uganda Women’s Health Initiative has constructed a hostel where, for a nominal fee of about $4.25 per month, women can stay while receiving radiotherapy treatment. Thus more women are likely to make the journey to the capital to receive radiation to treat their cancer.
Uganda Women’s Health Initiative, in collaboration with University College, London, has also pioneered a number of studies focused on reducing women’s postpartum hemorrhaging following birth, as well as techniques to reduce child mortality in a country where giving birth is one of the most dangerous things a women can do. Results and details from these studies shall remain undisclosed until their publication.
In addition to continuing their work in maternal and infant mortality, the UWHI hopes to scale up efforts for the treatment and prevention of cervical cancer in Uganda by establishing treatment and screening centers in each of Uganda’s 100+ districts.