Health officials in Kyrgyzstan have said that around 70 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 14 have been vaccinated against Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, as part of an ongoing campaign to reduce rates of cervical cancer.
That figure is being hailed as a success by the authorities, although more could have been done without the prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiments among the public.
Gulbara Ishenapysova, director of the national immunization center, says that work on the vaccination program began in 2017, but that implementation was hampered by costs and the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vaccination agenda is viewed as particularly urgent as cervical cancer is the most common cause of death among women in Kyrgyzstan affected by oncological diseases. HPV is primarily spread through sexual contact and some forms of it can cause cervical cancer, as well as other types of the disease.
The HPV vaccination program was first introduced in Kyrgyzstan in late 2021. Before that, the vaccination was hard to obtain other than in private clinics, where shots typically cost around $200. Average salaries in Kyrgyzstan currently stand at $280.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends administering HPV vaccinations around the ages of 11 or 12. Vaccinations are administered in two or three doses.
There are around 240,000 girls in Kyrgyzstan in the age group eligible for free vaccinations, so the number of available shots is less than ideal. More than 358,000 shots have been given to the country under the auspices of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI, which is perhaps best known for its work distributing COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide. Another 29,400 doses of the vaccine have been bought by the government at a cost of $132,300, the Health Ministry has said.
That potentially left around 100,000 eligible girls, around 20 percent of the total, without access to the vaccine.
In fact, though, demand has been constrained by suspicion over the vaccination drive, which has hampered the efforts of health officials.
According to the Health Ministry, vaccines are most often rejected in the capital, Bishkek, and the Chui region, where only around 45 percent of eligible girls are vaccinated against HPV. In the regions of Talas, Jalal-Abad and Osh, the uptake is closer to 85 percent.
“There is more trust in medical workers in the regions. In Bishkek, there is more trust in social networks, WhatsApp groups and the tabloid press,” Ishenapysova, the director of the national immunization center, told Eurasianet. “We will work harder with Bishkek… The population there is heavily conditioned by antivax sentiment.”
Where possible, HPV vaccinations are also administered to young boys, but in light of limited availability, the focus for now is on girls. Health authorities estimate that 20 women out of 100,000 in Kyrgyzstan develop cervical cancer every year. The figure is the highest in Central Asia and is 1.3 times the global average, the Health Ministry has said.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.