Discovery Center

Together We Can Stop Cervical Cancer

A Conversation with Linda Eckert and Tanjila Taskin

Thursday, April 25, 2024 | 5 - 7 pm PDT
A young girl after receiving the HPV vaccine in a clinic in Nigeria.
A young girl after receiving the HPV vaccine during the first phase of a country-wide HPV Vaccination Campaign targeting school-age girls between 9 and 14 years old in Lagos State, Nigeria. ©Gates Archive/Nyancho NwaNri

Together We Can Stop Cervical Cancer: A Conversation with Linda Eckert and Tanjila Taskin
Event was held on April 25, 2024

Delve into the urgent and critical issue of cervical cancer prevention with Dr. Linda Eckert and Tanjila Taskin, Program Officer, Immunization at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

During this event Dr. Linda Eckert, renowned author and advocate for women’s health, was in conversation with Dr. Tanjila Taskin as they discussed Dr. Eckert’s groundbreaking book, Enough: Because We Can Stop Cervical Cancer. Dr. Eckert weaves together her expertise as a physician and advocate with the voices of courageous cervical cancer survivors who are using their experiences to call for change. Enough is a heart-breaking, yet hopeful, book that takes you through the world of cervical cancer with evidence-based information, personal stories and actionable outcomes.  

Preventing cervical cancer deaths in world’s most resource-poor settings is an important part of the global health strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation including HPV vaccine introductions.  This event is open to all individuals passionate about women’s health, including healthcare professionals, researchers, activists, and community members. Together, let’s raise awareness, challenge the status quo, and work towards a world where cervical cancer is no longer a threat. 

According to Dr. Eckert’s website, cervical cancer kills almost 350,000 women each year. What’s more horrifying is that millions have died of this disease that’s nearly 100% preventable. It’s no secret that healthcare is full of inequities, with a severe lack of accessible screening and treatment programs. But women’s health care is also impeded by cultural, gender, and political barriers, issues that have combined to create devastating consequences.  

Thank you to our event partners Cervivor, PATH, School Nurse Organization of Washington, TogetHER for Health, University of Washington I-TECH, WE CARE, and Within Reach.

Watch the event video 

Click for a PDF transcript of this video.

About our speakers 

Dr. Linda O. Eckert is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology with an Infectious Disease Fellowship at the University of Washington and an internationally recognized expert in immunizations and cervical cancer prevention. For over thirty years, Dr. Eckert has worked at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital, treating people from all around the world. Frequently in the spotlight for her expertise in HPV vaccinations and cervical cancer screenings, Dr. Eckert is passionate in her drive to eliminate this deadly disease. 

Dr. Tanjila Taskin is a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and leads the HPV Learning Agenda and Country Engagement. With over twelve years of experience as an epidemiologist, Tanjila has spearheaded numerous observational and clinical trials in both the US and in LMIC. Driven by her dedication to cancer prevention, Tanjila has chosen a career path in public health. Her unwavering commitment to saving lives from cancer drives her mission to promote and ensure HPV vaccine equity, particularly in LMICs.

Q&A with Dr. Eckert

Discovery Center: How can we prevent cervical cancer?
Linda Eckert:
It’s an interesting cancer because it is one of the most preventable cancers. Almost all of it is caused by humanpapilloma virus (HPV) infections. Humanpapilloma virus is extremely common. There are about 200 types, but 12 have the ability to cause changes on the surface of the cervix that can lead to pre-cancer. The superpower we have to prevent cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine because it is incredibly effective at preventing the most common cancer-causing HPV types from taking hold on the cervi x.

Another way to prevent cervical cancer is by screening. Currently, we have two methods for screening for cervical cancer. One way is to test for the types of HPV that can cause the precancer changes — that is called high risk HPV testing. The other method, which has been around for about 50 years, is the Pap smear test. Pap smears test for precancer changes on the cervix. And, importantly, once pre-cancer is found, we can treat it very successfully and prevent cancer.

Lastly, even if someone already has cancer, if we find it early, we can treat the cancer and prevent death.

DC: Tell us about the HPV global vaccine effort.
: Countries choose whether they’re going to implement the vaccine. The implementation involves not just buying the vaccine, which is one big challenge, but also having to keep the vaccine safe, keep it cold, to deliver it, to track who gets it. We did have a massive global supply shortage from 2018 until recently, but now the supply has increased. It’s an expensive vaccine: In the U.S. it’s about $160. There is a global body called Gavi, [the Vaccine Alliance] that funds vaccines to the 52 poorest countries, and they have negotiated a price of $4.55. So many countries are now introducing the vaccine with the help of Gavi funding — this is really exciting! And so important! What that doesn’t account for is if you are a country not poor enough to get Gavi funding, but you are not rich enough to afford the vaccine — I call these the “caught in the middle” countries. So that’s the negative news.

The positive news is that since the WHO launched its global elimination effort, there is much more enthusiasm among global health partners and donors to try to make this vaccine available, and we are seeing real progress.

Read the rest of the Q&A on our website.

DC: When you wrote Enough, you included women’s personal stories. Why was that important?
LE: I felt like it was really important to make this a relatable cancer. This is something that happens to Google executives, to school teachers in California, to people that live in Zimbabwe and Namibia that may be radio stars. I felt the stories would help give that impression that this could happen to anybody.

I also feel that stories are really the way to shift policy. I have spent my life doing data and guidelines, and I feel like that’s super important. But if you want to think about how people really make decisions, I think it’s [through] stories.

DC: What do you hope people will take away from the conversation on April 25?
LE: I hope as we talk that the knowledge itself will be really useful to people, that they’ll feel like, Oh, I understand this better, and this isn’t such a medical thing that is over my head. The second is that it’ll help people be willing to drop a stone in the pond, and then the ripples move out. I don’t know where all these ripples are going to go, but I feel compelled to keep dropping stones and hoping that eventually the ripples move into a tsunami. And we need a tsunami: We need a change in political will and a change in mobilization to really eliminate a cancer that can be eliminated.

Q&A with Dr. Taskin

Discovery Center: Why is eliminating cervical cancer important to you?

Tanjila Taskin: My mission to eliminate cervical cancer is basically driven by three key factors. Firstly, cervical cancer is among those few cancers that can be prevented before their occurrence. Secondly, as a woman of color with a conservative religious background, I’ve noticed hesitancy and stigma around discussions on women’s health issues, especially anything regarding their reproductive organs. Recognizing the barriers that women face in accessing health care, I aspire to serve as a bridge, fostering open dialogue to bridge this gap.

Thirdly, on a personal level, I have witnessed one of my closest friends diagnosed with HPV back home who is highly educated and from an upper-class background, but still, I saw her struggle accessing the treatment and managing its impact on her personal life. It was a really hard time for us to navigate the treatment and have a dialogue with the family. That open conversation was not there. I find it difficult to comprehend the challenges faced by women living in poverty, with limited or no access to education, as they navigate through obstacles to seek health care and support from their families.

Lastly, I want to share something personal. Cancer is a big fear of mine. I’ve seen it take away my loved ones—uncles, aunts—too many times. It’s like a shadow over our families. That fear’s there, deep down, but it’s also what fuels me. This is why I want to be there for others going through it. I want to be that supporter, that person who understands. Because I know how tough it can be.

DC: How is it to be involved in this work when cancer has touched your life and the lives of those around you?

TT: Every morning, I wake up feeling excited about the chance to make a real difference as well as how I am contributing to accomplishing my mission to save lives, especially those in need. As a program officer at the foundation, it’s not just a job for me: It’s a mission. My work responsibilities include identifying cost-effective and sustainable HPV vaccination programs, as well as identifying the barriers to vaccine access in resource-limited low- and middle-income countries. It’s something I’m truly passionate about. 

When I got this role, it was like a dream come true. I mean, I get to be on the front lines of immunization efforts! From starting conversations about the importance of vaccines to seeing the actual vaccinations for young girls 9 to 14, every step feels incredibly rewarding. The impact we’re making is tangible, and that’s what keeps me going.

DC: What people should know about cervical cancer:

TT: Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. The fact is, it’s preventable!   HPV vaccines are widely available in many countries, but sadly, in many lower-income countries, access to these vaccines is still a challenge. It’s crucial that girls get this very safe and effective vaccine. And for parents who haven’t discussed this with their healthcare providers yet, it’s definitely worth the conversation. Together, we can make a real difference in protecting against cervical cancer.

DC: What people should know about cervical cancer:

TT: Everyone should know that cervical cancer is preventable, and we can prevent it in many ways, including through the HPV vaccine. We can screen for cervical cancer through a regular pap smear or the HPV test by itself. These tests can detect cervical abnormalities in the early stages, allowing time for treatment and prevention of cervical cancer. Even if someone does get diagnosed, there are treatment options such as surgery, radiation therapy, or even chemotherapy that are often very effective with high cure rates. So, there’s a lot of hope out there.

DC: Talking to someone who might be afraid to get the HPV vaccine:

TT: If I’m talking to someone who’s hesitant or afraid about the HPV vaccine, the first thing I’d do is listen. I want to understand what’s making them worried. Once I’ve got that, I’d aim to empower them with the facts. For example, ensuring that the HPV vaccine has been extensively studied for the last decade and proven to be safe with millions of doses administered worldwide. I would make sure they know about the big benefits too, like how it helps prevent cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. It’s all about giving them the info they need to feel confident. 

Reflections on Dr. Eckert’s book

Beautifully written, Enough is a searing call to arms, for too many women are dying of cervical cancer when we have the tools to save their lives. The unnecessary human cost of cervical cancer is a scandal, and one that Dr. Eckert is determined to fix.

Nicholas Kristof, Columnist,  The New York Times
and co-author Half the Sky

Eckert presents an urgent and powerful call to action to save lives, based on her decades of practice and research around the world. Enough is an essential resource for anyone concerned with public health, women’s rights, and addressing racial and national inequities in healthcare.

Anjli Parrin, Director, Global Human Rights Clinic

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