On March 10, the South African Departments of Basic Education and Health began providing free human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines to girls between the ages of 9 and 10. The vaccines will help protect against HPV infection as well as other health problems the infection may cause, such as cervical cancer.
The cost of such an endeavor is attracting concerns. The HPV vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix are among the most expensive immunizations in the world. Pricing of Gardasil in South Africa is estimated at 770 rand ($70) per injection. Cervarix costs 700 rand ($64.50) per injection. In the US, a single injection of either vaccine cost $130, but it is up to either the individual or insurance company to cover the cost.
A far more pressing issue lies in raising the overall awareness of cervical cancer. While parents take their children less 5 years old for standard vaccines, “older children don’t access healthcare because they are healthy, or at least think they are,” said Dr. Greta Dreyer, a Gynaecologic Cancer Clinician at the University of Pretoria and the Steve Biko Academic Hospital. “The only way to reach them is through schools.”
It is this last issue that Washington University in St. Louis students Hannah Lo and Anchal Saxena hope to address through the design of an HPV vaccine awareness program. Their CGI U Commitment to Action, the HPV Educational Resources Outreach Program (HERO), will use animated films and cartoon strips to increase awareness of HPV in an effort to encourage participation in the vaccination program.
Lo said the idea emerged from many email conversations with public health workers in South Africa. A major lead came from Mary Kawonga, a public health medicine specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Mary suggested that we look into doing animations and comics, since this nonprofit called Soul City was really successful in getting their message across in South Africa,” Lo said.
The Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication does research on multimedia “edutainment,” which combines the use of television and radio dramas to create a platform for promoting health and social change.
“Soul City’s success with a multi-media platform among South African children (encouraged us) to design a similar project using cartoons and animations to deliver information about the HPV vaccine,” Saxena said.
Seeing successful examples of multimedia campaigns in raising health awareness, Lo and Saxena began to seriously consider acting on their common interest in global health to make a contribution to improving health equity.
“We decided to contact Soul City, who referred to the nonprofit Right to Care, an organization that raises awareness for HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer in South Africa, who put us in contact with the Department of Public Health,” Lo said.
After collaborating with art students to design the film and comics, Lo and Saxena plan to travel to South Africa, where they hope to bring their educational initiative to the schools that are beginning vaccinations.
As they wait for their final approval from the South African Department of Public Health, the two reflect on the progress they have made so far.
“I think some of our successes would be the great amount of support we have received from doctors and public health workers in South Africa,” Saxena said. “I also think our acceptance to CGI U is another success and has definitely helped motivate us to work harder.”