Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in Malawi, but preventable through screening. Malawi primarily uses visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) for screening, however, a follow-up for positive screening results remains a major barrier, in rural areas. We interviewed women who underwent a community-based screen-and-treat campaign that offered same-day treatment with thermocoagulation, a heat-based ablative procedure for VIA-positive lesions, to understand the barriers in accessing post-treatment follow-up and the role of male partners in contributing to, or overcoming these barriers.
We conducted in-depths interviews with 17 women recruited in a pilot study that evaluated the safety and acceptability of community-based screen-and-treat programme using VIA and thermocoagulation for cervical cancer prevention in rural Lilongwe, Malawi. Ten of the women interviewed presented for post-treatment follow-up at the healthcare facility and seven did not. The interviews were analysed for thematic content surrounding barriers for attending for follow-up and role of male partners in screening.
Transportation was identified as a major barrier to post-thermocoagulation follow-up appointment, given long distances to the healthcare facility. Male partners were perceived as both a barrier for some, that is, not supportive of 6-week post-thermocoagulation abstinence recommendation, and as an important source of support for others, that is, encouraging follow-up attendance, providing emotional support to maintaining post-treatment abstinence and as a resource in overcoming transportation barriers. Regardless, the majority of women desired more male partner involvement in cervical cancer screening.
Despite access to same-day treatment, long travel distances to health facilities for post-treatment follow-up visits remained a major barrier for women in rural Lilongwe. Male partners were identified both as a barrier to, and an important source of support for accessing and completing the screen-and-treat programme. To successfully eliminate cervical cancer in Malawi, it is imperative to understand the day-to-day barriers women face in accessing preventative care.