Dr. Annie De Groot and nonprofit director Eliza Squibb say prevention program is a success

KINGSTON, R.I. – The bright yellow African storytelling cloth designed by a University of Rhode Island researcher and nonprofit director is helping prevent cervical cancer in Mali.

That’s the word from Dr. Annie De Groot, a University of Rhode Island vaccine researcher who recently returned from a two-week trip to the West African country to coordinate a campaign to prevent the illness.

De Groot, of Providence, is an expert on vaccines and is founder of the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS Vaccine Foundation, or GAIA Vaccine Foundation. The nonprofit’s director, Eliza Squibb, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, also went on the trip.

“We’re thrilled with the early results of our public awareness campaign,’’ says Squibb. “We’re well on our way to combating one of the deadliest cancers among women in Africa.’’

The campaign was made possible with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a program to encourage scientists to create innovative solutions to worldwide health challenges. Using an African storytelling cloth to educate people about the disease is De Groot’s grant-winning idea.

In West Africa, patterns are used to communicate and tell stories, almost like social media. Textiles with images and words, for example, are used to convey social or economic messages. De Groot thought it would be a great idea to design a cloth that highlights the connection between HPV, or human papillomavirus, and the prevention of cervical cancer.

De Groot and Squibb designed the fabric, which shows healthy, flowering uteruses next to a banner that says, “I protect myself. I care for myself. I get vaccinated.’’ A local proverb in Bambara, the main language in Mali, is also included: “Banakoubé kafisa ni bana foura kéyé” or “It’s better to prevent than cure.” Disguised in the print are images of fallopian tubes and uteruses surrounding a near-invasion of HPV viruses embedded in abnormal cells. Both women and men enjoy wearing the colorful fabric.

De Groot and Squibb went to Mali for two weeks in early June. They visited five clinics in Bamako, the capital of Mali, to distribute the cloth. The campaign included weekly educational programs, community outreach and free cervical cancer screenings and treatment. Radio ads about prevention also aired throughout the capital.

Squibb says the program is a success:

  • Cervical screenings have soared since medical staff in Mali launched the campaign three months ago. So far, 1,629 women have been screened, compared to 283 during the same time last year.
  • All women who tested positive for precancerous lesions received free treatment from a doctor.
  • Women reported that they liked the educational sessions and requested more seminars on child health, reproductive health and viral infections.
  • Of the women who responded to a survey, 20 percent learned about cervical cancer from a peer educator, 11 percent got their information from a clinic, 25 percent learned about the disease from a friend or neighbor, 30 percent were referred by a doctor and 6 percent heard about the illness from a radio ad.
  • Nearly all the women who had seen the HPV cloth said they would share the fabric’s information with family and friends. All of them said they would recommend screenings to women, thanks to the cloth.

Cervical cancer is one of the most common and deadly cancers among women in Africa, with rates five times higher than in the United States. The high rate is linked to inaccessibility to health care and annual exams – and to a lack of knowledge about HPV. Research by De Groot’s organization found that fewer than three in 100 people in Mali are aware of the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, and that testing for cervical cancer is extremely low.

The campaign will continue for the next three months and longer, if possible. The organization is seeking more grant money from various groups, including the Gates Foundation.

“We want to continue the screening program as long as we can,’’ says Squibb, a native of Camden, Maine. “It’s an important public health program. Women are getting treated now for lesions that might turn into cancer later.’’

De Groot is optimistic about the future: “It has been gratifying to see how engaged the physicians, midwives and nurses in Mali have been about this project. Cervical cancer is something they are all familiar with, as it has touched their own families. We look forward to the next step of our project which will be to prevent cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine.”

De Groot’s foundation also supports other projects in West Africa, including building a clinic for HIV care and conducting studies on vaccines to prevent infectious diseases that affect populations, especially women, living in developing countries.

De Groot is director of URI’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics and medical director of Clínica Esperanza, a free clinic in Providence. She was recently named one of the 50 most influential people in the field of vaccines. Squibb graduated from RISD in 2013 with a degree in textiles.

To learn more about the HPV program, watch the video:

or visit www.gaiavaccine.org