Global Risks

7 facts about bridging the cervical cancer health gap

Cervical cancer is preventable, but hundreds of thousands of women suffer from it every year.

Cervical cancer is preventable, but hundreds of thousands of women suffer from it every year. Image: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Hundreds of thousands of women die each year from cervical cancer, particularly in lower-income countries, but it’s a preventable disease.
  • The World Health Organization has set targets to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Alliance for Women’s Health has launched a Cervical and Breast Cancer Coalition to speed progress to detection, treatment and care.

In 2022, over a third of a million women around the world died from cervical cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The vast majority of those deaths (94%) were in low and middle-income countries, as women lacked access to screening and treatment services.

But it’s an entirely preventable disease – and curable, if caught early enough and treated effectively.

The WHO has set targets to eliminate cervical cancer by reducing the number of cases to less than four per 100,000 women by 2030.

The targets include the vaccination of 90% of girls with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine by the age of 15 years. If left untreated, the sexually transmitted disease causes 95% of cervical cancers.

Here are seven facts that highlight the global disparities in cervical cancer and the efforts needed to bridge this health gap.

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1. The global burden of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women, the WHO figures show, with an estimated 660,000 new cases in 2022. In the same year, around 350,000 women died from cervical cancer. But the distribution of cases and deaths is far from uniform.

2. The health gap in cervical cancer

The highest rates of cervical cancer are found in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and South-East Asia. Cervical cancer accounts for the second-highest numbers of cancer deaths among women in sub-Saharan Africa, and the death rate more than doubled between 1990 and 2019, as the Our World in Data chart below shows.

Cancer deaths by type, Sub-Saharan Africa (WB), 1990 to 2019
The incidence of cervical cancer has risen in sub-Saharan Africa. Image: Our World in Data

In Kenya, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality, accounting for 3,591 deaths in 2022 – 12% of all cancer deaths in the country – according to the WHO Global Cancer Observatory.

In the same year, cervical cancer in the US accounted for just 0.98% of all cancer deaths. In the UK, that dropped to just 0.64% of cancer deaths.

3. The socioeconomic factor in cervical cancer

An analysis of WHO data in the Lancet found a “clear socioeconomic gradient exists”. Countries with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) score have lower rates of cervical cancer. It found that countries with a low HDI had triple the number of cases of cervical cancer and mortality rates were six times higher than those with a very high HDI.

4. Gender inequality and cervical cancer

A link has also been found between gender inequality and cervical cancer, with a 2012 study finding the risk of death from cervical cancer was higher in those countries scoring lower on the UN’s Global Inequality Index. The WHO says gender biases can play a role in the incidence of cervical cancer.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

5. Barriers to cervical cancer screening

Screening is a critical preventive measure for cervical cancer, yet many women face significant barriers to accessing these services.

Screening rates vary widely around the world. As the World Economic Forum’s Closing the Women’s Health Gap report showed, around a third (36%) of women worldwide have been screened for cervical cancer in their lifetime. That rises to 84% in high-income countries – but is less than 20% in lower-middle-income and low-income countries.

. Percentage of countries with a national cervical cancer screening programme, by World Bank income group, 2019
Screening programmes for cervical cancer vary across the world. Image: WHO

The WHO has set a target of 70% of women being screened with a high-performance test by the age of 35 and again by 45, by 2030.

A 2022 study in the US surveyed 710 low-income, uninsured or publicly insured women aged 25-64 years, who were not up to date on cervical cancer screening according to national guidelines. It found that more than half of all groups surveyed (61%) reported five or more barriers to receiving screening. Common barriers include lack of insurance, cost and lack of provider recommendation.

6. Preventing cervical cancer

Preventive interventions such as screening and HPV vaccination have shown to be effective in reducing cervical cancer incidence and mortality.

High-income countries with well-developed population-based screening and treatment services, such as Sweden, Australia and the UK, have seen stable and relatively low incidence rates since around 2005, the Lancet analysis showed.

In May 2024, figures for England showed the roll-out of the HPV vaccine among girls aged 12-13 from 2008 had cut cases by 90%.

Nigeria’s state of Kwara has announced a vaccination programme for more than 300,000 girls aged between 9 and 14, according to the country’s news agency. In 2022, cervical cancer was the second-biggest cancer among women and accounted for 8.9% of Nigeria’s cancer deaths.

Absolute numbers, Incidence, Females, in 2022 Nigeria
Cervical cancer is the second-biggest cancer among women in Nigeria. Image: Global Cancer Observatory

7. Closing the cervical health gap

Eliminating cervical cancer by 2030 and addressing global disparities requires a multifaceted approach that includes improving socioeconomic conditions and enhancing access to preventive health services, through greater funding and promoting gender equality.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Alliance for Women’s Health has launched a Cervical and Breast Cancer Coalition, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health Kenya to speed progress to detection, treatment and care.

Launched on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly, the coalition is a platform that will respond to Kenya’s needs and challenges and expand efforts to collaborate with other ministries and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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