Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and it can cause cervical and other cancers. After a person contracts HPV, cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop.
But HPV infection is preventable. It is important to vaccinate young girls before they are exposed—this is Cathy Ndiaye’s passion.
Cathy is a public health expert, epidemiologist, and Director of HPV Vaccine Programs at PATH. Cathy began her career working in laboratories at the Harvard School of Public Health, doing research on malaria and drug resistance.
“I spent four years working on a project trying to understand why malaria was drug resistant,” Cathy says.
Driven by the desire to lead disease prevention and control efforts in communities, Cathy pursued Master of Public Health and PhD degrees, writing her PhD thesis on HPV-related cancers, and pursuing a post-doctoral study in cervical cancer treatment at the University of Montreal, Canada.
Building healthy communities
Since completing her doctorate, Cathy has been working on HPV and prevention of cervical cancer. Today, at PATH, Cathy’s role focuses on HPV prevention. She supports ministries of health and the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) to introduce the HPV vaccine. Typhoid, family planning, and noncommunicable diseases are also part of her portfolio.
“Generally, I work on HPV and cervical cancer prevention through vaccination. I support vaccination programs, mainly HPV programs, as well as new vaccines when they are introduced,” Cathy says. “For now, my role is all about prevention and vaccination.”
She continues, “I am very passionate when it comes to saving lives, especially girls and women. Cervical cancer affects women at 40 to 50 years old, and the financial and social burden before and after the death of women is high on the family. In Africa, women play very crucial roles in the family, and it is heartbreaking for me to see them die and leave young children at a time when we really need them.”
Cathy’s passion about HPV prevention and treatment is further driven by events in her family.
“I had the personal experience of losing relatives through cervical cancer. Knowing that it is a disease that we can prevent, for me, it just doesn’t make sense not to do anything about it,” Cathy explains. “At least we know what to do about the situation: either vaccinating young girls or getting women screened and treated when they have passed the age of vaccination.”
Building strong relationships
Cathy believes a combination of trust, transparency, collaboration, and respect is key to building effective working relationships with diverse partners.
“I build relationships with partners through trust,” Cathy says. “As we support the ministries of health in the introduction of HPV and other vaccines, it is important to build trust and be transparent.”
Cathy further explains that she maintains the trust by providing all the data that the ministries may need, making them understand why they should choose the vaccine, what the impact will be if they choose the vaccine, and the lives they will save if they choose it.
Cathy will assure the ministries of health that the vaccine is safe and that they will receive the necessary support when they are implementing the vaccine introduction activities. Given that the ministries of health are busy with competing priorities, Cathy adopts a flexible approach and is patient in partnering with them.
“I use this approach to get attention from the ministries of health,” Cathy says. “It helps PATH’s advocacy efforts and also helps to minimize any tension that may arise from the seeming competition among other in-country partners.”
Overcoming challenges with HPV prevention
HPV work can be controversial as it relates to girls and adolescents. It is important to address rumors and negative perceptions about the vaccine. Because the HPV vaccine is quite new, and the target age for vaccination is 9 to 14, parents often express concerns. For instance, some caregivers worry about fertility and reproductive health implications.
Cathy relies on advocacy and communication to deliver accurate information, answer the questions parents may have, and explain why vaccination is important to prevent a fatal cancer. Anyone can get the virus, so it is important to vaccinate girls before they are exposed.
“Our role is to answer questions and reduce concerns as much as possible,” Cathy says. “In our messages, we emphasize the vaccine’s safety. We explain that we are vaccinating only girls due to limited vaccine supplies, but that in developed countries both boys and girls are vaccinated.”
A crucial advocate and a trusted advisor, Cathy is a member of the Global HPV Sub Team, a group of experts who provide Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, with technical advice for planning and evaluating vaccine introduction in eligible countries. The PATH technical support team has supported 28 countries in the introduction of the HPV vaccine in recent years.
Expanding access to treatment
As part of PATH’s work, Cathy is pushing to get a cancer treatment center in Senegal and in some other countries. This doesn’t come without challenges.
“This involves getting the right diagnostic tools, training health personnel on cervical cancer screening, and—importantly—finding funding,” Cathy says. She is therefore looking at identifying people who are ready to support this cause and to fund cancer screenings for women.
“In the meantime,” Cathy continues, “it is refreshing that the vaccine is readily available for girls, and so we are working on that.”
Cathy finds fulfilment in helping women take charge of their health, and she thinks that can happen by increasing their access to quality health services. Her immediate goals are increasing and facilitating access to HPV prevention and treatment. When she is able to establish cancer treatment centers in countries across Africa, then she will have achieved a big dream in her life.