•Kenya had targeted to vaccinate 3.2 million girls by June this year.
•Two months ago, Dr Mary Nyangasi, head of the National Cancer Control Programme in Kenya, said boys in primary school will soon be eligible to receive the free vaccine.
Like many other women who take their daughters for the HPV vaccination, Catherine expected the health worker would quell her fears about the side-effects and rumours about population control.
“They talk in a very rude manner. They don’t even explain why they are giving the vaccines,” she described the health workers in a facility in Kilifi.
The same complaint was repeated by parents and caregivers in Turkana, Nairobi and Kitui last year when researchers from the Ministry of Health and other institutions sought to find the reasons for the low uptake.
The vaccine is the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer, which kills about 3,500 women in Kenya every year.
The ministry has only vaccinated half of the targeted population of girls since it introduced the vaccine in 2019.
Many caregivers described the behaviour of healthcare workers as a key turn-off.
They were disrespectful and spoke to them in a disdainful manner and, because of this, the caregivers could not return the girls for a second dose.
As a result, Kenya has struggled to get girls to take two doses, given six months apart.
By February this year, 1.7 million girls (out of the targeted 3.2 million) had been vaccinated with the first dose but only 876,800 had received the second jab.
It is important for health workers to explain the importance of the HPV vaccine, the researchers said, because of widespread conspiracy theories that the vaccine is given to girls to make them infertile to control population growth.
“I heard if HPV vaccine is given to girls, they will become infertile, they won’t give birth... that the government has a plan to reduce the population,” a caregiver in Turkana said.
The study results, published in the BMC Public Health Journal last week, also note this kind of misinformation is rife in Nairobi through social media.
The study is titled, “Exploring the factors contributing to low vaccination uptake for nationally recommended routine childhood and adolescent vaccines in Kenya.”
It recommends that healthcare workers should be involved in awareness campaigns for HPV vaccination as they are trusted by the communities.
“Involvement of other actors from the communities, such as religious and community leaders, school teachers, could improve awareness and strengthen acceptance for hesitant caregivers,” it says.
Kenya had targeted to vaccinate 3.2 million girls by June this year.
So far, most vaccinations have taken place in Bungoma, Siaya, Vihiga, Nyamira, Taita Taveta, Kirinyaga, Nyandarua and Nyeri, according to the Ministry of Health's National Vaccines and Immunisation Programme.
These counties have vaccinated at least 50 per cent of the targeted girls with a single dose.
The lowest vaccination levels are in Wajir, Garissa, Turkana, Isiolo, Mandera, West Pokot, Samburu and Marsabit counties, with only 20 per cent of targeted girls vaccinated.
The vaccine helps the body fight off infection by the Human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers, as well as genital warts.
This virus is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. Only about 20 countries in Africa have introduced the vaccine.
Currently, Kenya only recommends the jab to girls, aged nine to 14 years.
Two months ago, Dr Mary Nyangasi, head of the National Cancer Control Programme in Kenya, said boys in primary school will soon be eligible to receive the free vaccine.
Dr Nyangasi said reducing the number of males carrying the virus will help prevent its transmission to women.
The vaccine also prevents boys from getting infected with the HPV types that can cause cancers of the mouth or throat, penis and anus, as well as genital warts.
“We are still negotiating for more doses, the world is moving towards vaccinating all boys and girls between nine to 14 years,” she said.