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Researchers Awarded Grant to Improve Cervical Cancer Screening and Treatment in Kenya

August 31, 2023

With the aid of a new $583,607 grant from the National Cancer Institute, researchers will see if they can boost cervical cancer screening and treatment follow-up using a novel web-based tool. Leading the five-year study is Sarah Kessler, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and a member of The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, as well as Natabhona Mabachi, PhD, MPH, director of Evaluation and Research Investigator at the DARTNet Institute and a former faculty member at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

In Kenya, cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer affecting the female reproductive system, accounting for more than 80% of cases. However, only 16% of eligible women undergo screening for this cancer. This falls significantly short of the World Health Organization's goal of 70% screening coverage. 

When women who are screened and found to have precancerous or cancerous lesions are referred for treatment, 30-60% of them do not continue with their treatment. According to Dr. Kessler, this is due to various social and economic barriers as well as multiple challenges within the healthcare system. However, innovative digital health strategies have shown success in improving provider and patient outcomes, especially in places with limited resources. These strategies, according to Dr. Kessler, could be the key to improving cervical cancer screening and treatment coverage in Kenya.

“We have learned multiple lessons in scaling up diagnostic services, making treatment accessible and recognizing the importance of social support to combat stigma from the global response to HIV. We are leveraging those lessons to develop low-cost, technological solutions to improve the quality of cancer services offered by providers and to increase screening and treatment completion rates among women,” Dr. Kessler said.

Dr. Mabachi received pilot funding from the cancer center to work with Kevin Oyowe, a Kenyan software engineer, to develop the Cancer Tracking System (CATSystem), a web-based tool that uses an algorithm to guide providers and patients in following recommended guidelines for cervical cancer prevention and treatment. This system was tested in a Kenyan hospital on a small scale. During the testing, the rates of treating precancerous lesions and referring women with positive screening results for treatment increased significantly compared to the six months before the system was introduced.

Now, researchers will evaluate use of the system at a larger scale. They will assess how effective, feasible and economical the CATSystem is in improving cancer care. The project will involve a study in ten Kenyan hospitals, with five hospitals using the CATSystem and the other five following standard care procedures. 

“We have such an opportunity for early detection and treatment to drastically reduce cervical cancer morbidity and mortality among Kenyan women, especially among women living with HIV who are at increased risk,” Dr. Kessler said. “If the CATSystem proves to be effective and cost-effective, there will be strong national support for scale-up.” 

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