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The Pavilion, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Oct. 11, 2022. Credit: Liliann Zou

Penn Medicine has received a $3.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop and implement strategies to improve cervical cancer care in Botswana.

The grant continues a two-decade history of collaborating with local healthcare partners in the sub-Saharan African nation through the Botswana-UPenn Partnership, according to Penn Medicine News.

The NCI-funded project is co-led by Surbhi Grover, the director of global radiation oncology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), and Katharine Rendle, assistant professor of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Perelman School of Medicine.

The project aims to increase communication among healthcare facilities — from laboratories that make diagnoses to clinics that provide treatment — in order to make care more efficient, according to Penn Medicine. The project will also test strategies to increase communication between healthcare providers and their patients.

The Botswana-UPenn Partnership is a collaboration between Penn, the Government of Botswana, and the University of Botswana to "improve health and healthcare capacity in Botswana, and promote and conduct innovative research critical to better understanding the global nature of the HIV epidemic." Penn Medicine's Department of Radiation Oncology has been working in Botswana since 2011.

Grover, who has been living and working in Botswana since 2014, said that months may pass between the biopsy and the initiation of treatment, since there is no way for the lab to notify treatment facilities of the diagnosis.

Rendle added that they will work to condense this process in “the most cost-effective and efficient way, reducing burden on the health system,” according to Penn Medicine.

In Botswana, cervical cancer is both the leading cause of female cancer deaths and the most common cancer among women aged 15 to 44, according to a 2021 report from the HPV Information Centre. This is due in part to the nation’s high rates of HIV. UNAIDS data from 2021 showed that Botswana had the third-highest prevalence of HIV globally among adults 15 to 49.

HIV weakens the immune system, increasing vulnerability to the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer. The World Health Organization reported that “women living with HIV have a six-fold increased risk of cervical cancer when compared to women without HIV.” A WHO-funded 2021 study found that approximately two-thirds of Botswana’s cervical cancer cases are attributable to HIV.

According to Rendle, the team hopes to use this project as a model for improving cancer care in Botswana and other nations in a way that is “sustainable over time” and responds to the “needs and priorities” of Penn’s global partners.