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“And so, we will keep marching on”: from Cervical Cancer to COVID-19

By: Center Staff

This week, we are taking a pause from our series, COVID-19 and training, empowerment, and technology, to share our conversations with three GWHT collaborators who are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Drs. Neerja Bhatla, Julie Torode, and Shoba Krishnan have graciously provided us with accounts of their work as women on the front lines.

Image Source: American Cancer Society

Dr. Neerja Bhatla of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, India is a specialist in Gynaecologic Oncology. She is currently the acting Head of the Department where she is overseeing delivery of routine and emergency services.

We asked Dr. Bhatla to provide us with some insight on the impact of COVID-19 in New Delhi.

Q: How is your organization responding to the pandemic?

AIIMS has set up several COVID-19 facilities in multiple locations including, NCI, Jhajjar and in Delhi at the Trauma Center. We are prepared to test patients, provide treatment and have put out proposals for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Once these trials begin, the AIIMS facilities will be connected with enrolling patients in trials of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

Q: Have you seen COVID-19 impact women?

My department recently performed a Cesarean delivery on a woman who had tested positive for COVID-19.


Image Courtesy of Dr. Julie Torode

Dr. Julie Torode is the Director of Special Projects at the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. UICC “unites and supports the cancer community to reduce the global cancer burden, to promote greater equity, and to ensure that cancer control continues to be a priority in the world health and development agenda.”

We asked Dr. Torode about UICC’s involvement in COVID-19 efforts as well as the effects on the organization’s home country, Switzerland.

Q: Are you or your organization doing any work specific to COVID-19 and, if so, where?

Yes, we have responded to support our member organisations. We collate all relevant materials on cancer and COVID-19 and provide them in one place on the International Cancer Control Partnership Portal.

UICC alongside key UICC members have initiated a collaborative taskforce to assess the direct (risk) and indirect (loss of care) impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer.

As a group we are seriously concerned that the modelling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has driven national responses to date has focused on the trajectory of the infection and mortality based on COVID-19 interventions alone, neglecting social and economic consequences as well as other co-morbidities and health outcomes. We are keen to ensure that the cancer impacts are included and know that it is up to our community to take the lead.

The three key elements are:

  1. Assessment of COVID-19 on cancer outcomes with an emphasis on real-time analysis

  2. Build consortium for collaborative effort of infectious disease and cancer modellers to inform late stream consequences and recovery

  3. National impact on frontline healthcare workers as pandemic progresses

Q: Do you have a sense of how the country/location you are working in will pivot post-COVID-19 recovery for overall health care management?

UICC is located in Switzerland, a high-income nation with strong social protections. As a global NGO, our perspective is to focus on membership needs. We see a clear impact on cancer screening rates in high income settings — we need to consider public campaigns to reactive the community engagement. We also have significant concerns about community impact in Lower-Middle-Income Countries which are more related to national lock-downs and pushing into poverty and starvation. This is likely to be more severe than the COVID-19 impacts. Finally, the potential for the leveraging of COVID-19 laboratory investments for building screening infrastructure could be a positive effect for community sensitisation for HPV prevention post-COVID-19.

Dr. Torode recently wrote a blog encouraging the continued fight against cervical cancer even in the midst of the pandemic.


Image Source: Speakerpedia

Dr. Shobha Krishnan is the Founder and President of Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer (GIAHC). Dr. Krishnan is collaborating with women working on the front lines as well as women who are affected by cervical cancer.

We asked Dr. Krishnan about her experiences with the effects of COVID-19 on front line women specifically, as well as the effects of the virus on cervical cancer patients.

Q: How are women on the front lines of healthcare being impacted by the pandemic?

In the United States, we know that around 70% of our healthcare heroes are women. We are closely collaborating with the American Medical Women’s Association to provide women with additional information on the following topics: Resiliency on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, self-care for women physicians, dealing with uncertainty, how to handle social isolation, caregiver stress, relaxation strategies, financial stress in the time of COVID-19, preventing burnout in women physicians, and health disparities in COVID-19.

Q:How has the pandemic impacted cervical cancer?

Internationally, several of our partners are expressing hardship and layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cancer screening programs have been cancelled or put on hold until further notice.

We are nervous that this delay in cancer screening will result in a setback, typically screening programs always take a back seat to all else, especially when there are so many competing needs.

Q: Do you think the pandemic will also cause a setback in preventing other diseases?

Yes, the same holds true for the vaccination programs. Most childhood vaccination programs have been suspended or cancelled and there is a real concern that infectious and preventable illnesses might come roaring back and minimize the importance of HPV vaccination.

Q: Have you seen any novel ideas of community come out of this time of social distancing?

We are actively exploring a partnership with Clean the World Foundation for distribution of soaps worldwide during the COVID-19 epidemic. This is a time for creative approaches and we are also looking into options of getting involved with their feminine hygiene program as a part of our ongoing cervical cancer prevention program and as a basis for good health and wellness.

Q: What keeps you hopeful?

We are optimistic and hope that with strong advocacy, strategic partnerships and timely funding, we will be able make progress in the cervical cancer prevention field. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.” and so, we will keep marching on.



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