In Ethiopia, Liya Wondwossen champions cervical cancer prevention

August 12, 2020 by Monica Graham

Liya Wondwossen was only a child when she lost a close family friend to cervical cancer. Today, she’s a driving force behind HPV vaccine access for girls across Ethiopia.

Liya Wondwossen has dedicated her career to expanding HPV vaccine access in Ethiopia. Photo: PATH.

Liya Wondwossen has dedicated her career to expanding HPV vaccine access in Ethiopia. Photo: PATH.

This story is part of our ongoing “People of PATH” series, in which we highlight a team member who’s moving humanity forward.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, health care access could be a challenge in Liya Wondwossen’s community. She remembers people waking early to queue at the health center for routine checks and medical treatments. Even as a child, Liya knew everyone deserved access to care they needed. And she knew she wanted to dedicate her career to making it possible.

Protecting girls from cervical cancer

Liya has done just that. Before joining PATH last year, she spent a decade in Ethiopia’s health sector, including the Ministry of Health. During her time at the ministry, she led several health programs, including the Expanded Programme on Immunization. In December 2018, she managed the introduction of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that eventually reached more than 2 million 14-year-old girls.

“Liya is a vibrant young woman with vast experience in the Ethiopian health system,” says Tirsit Grishaw, PATH’s Ethiopia country director. “Having her on our team contributes a lot to our effectiveness and responsiveness.”

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Liya Wondwossen, senior HPV technical advisor with PATH, delivers an orientation to girls in Ethiopia’s Afar Region to preparethem to receive the HPV vaccine. Photo: PATH/Mohammed Abdurahman.

As PATH’s new senior HPV technical advisor, Liya looks forward to supporting the implementation of HPV vaccination programs across the country.

Most recently, she worked to deliver the vaccine to girls not attending school in the Afar and Somali Regions. (Because the HPV vaccination program is administered via schools, Liya also finds ways to reach girls outside the system.) “I hope to achieve full coverage of the cohort,” Liya says. “My wish is to protect these girls from cervical cancer.”

It’s no simple task. Logistics for immunization programs in Ethiopia—and especially in these two areas—can be very challenging. In northeast Afar Region, for example, many areas are completely inaccessible by vehicle. With temperatures routinely reaching 48°C (118°F), it’s also one of the hottest places on earth. Another challenge? Most Afar people are nomadic, constantly herding livestock over vast distances, so administering follow-up vaccine doses can be difficult.

But where others see obstacles—geography, climate, pandemic, and more—Liya sees opportunity.

Pivoting in the time of pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted everything—including routine immunizations. But it has brought one unexpected benefit. Liya explains: “The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to advocate more for vaccination.”

Just recently, she partnered with the government on a measles vaccination campaign for children under age five. The organizers expected low participation due to fear of COVID-19, but the awareness actually increased turnout. Liya and her colleagues had never seen such a huge demand during prior campaigns in Addis Ababa.

“The pandemic has renewed public interest in health,” Liya says. “How can we leverage this awareness for the good of HPV vaccine access and cervical cancer prevention and elimination? This is all I think about.”