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Clyde River woman plays role in Ethiopia’s HPV vaccination campaign

Rebecca Gass sits among the girls at a school in Asosa, Ethiopia, who received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination on Dec. 3.
Rebecca Gass sits among the girls at a school in Asosa, Ethiopia, who received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination on Dec. 3. - Contributed

While many people gathered around a Christmas tree and opened presents on Christmas Day, Rebecca Gass was giving a presentation to journalists in Ethiopia.

The Clyde River woman is in Ethiopia on a work term aimed at helping promote female empowerment and health in the country.

“It’s bitter sweet,” said Gass. “I’m missing my family a lot, but I’ve created a small family here.”

Initially, Gass signed on with Cuso International to work for the Midwives Save Lives program in the northern part of the country for a university. Cuso International is a not-for-profit organization that works to eradicate poverty and inequality through the efforts of volunteers, collaborative partnerships and donors.

Plans changed when doctors told Gass the high altitude of the area would be harmful for her chronic lung condition, bronchiectasis.

When Gass left for Ethiopia in September, she ended up in Asosa working for the Regional Health Bureau, which is a branch of Ethiopia’s ministry of health that serves the Benishangul-Gumuz region.

The location swap turned out to be positive.

“The experience here has literally changed my life so far.”

- Rebecca Gass

“The experience here has literally changed my life so far,” said Gass.

Gass’ most recent role was to develop media training sessions in the country, which she presented to journalists and public relations professionals on Christmas Day. The goal was to help build health communications and health promotion.

Her main roles have been in the health bureau’s public relations department, supporting the bureau through health promotion, communications planning and more.

Gass also supports the Cuso International field office by attending training and supporting people giving the trainings.

Gass was also placed on a regional task force for a national human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination roll-out campaign for the country.

“It was an honour, and I felt really humbled and excited to work on this initiative,” she said.

A local girl in Asosa, Ethiopia, receives the HPV shot during the country’s roll-out campaign.
A local girl in Asosa, Ethiopia, receives the HPV shot during the country’s roll-out campaign.

Gass said cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of death among females in Ethiopia. That’s why the country’s government decided to launch an HPV vaccine for 14-year-old girls.

Since many families there do not have TVs or radios, the government played audio messages through speakers mounted on vehicles driving throughout the villages in the region.

The voice on these types of recordings is always a man. For this campaign, Gass suggested a change.

“As a part of this committee and as part of being a woman and supporting these girls, and my academic experience on female empowerment, I suggested that the recordings, which had only ever been male voices, be women’s voices,” she said.

She says the reaction to her suggestion was negative.

“ ‘No, we’re not doing that, that’s stupid’,” she said she was told.

Eventually, officials came around to the idea, and a recording about the HPV vaccines was made with female voices in Amharic, one of the primary languages in Ethiopia, and Routana, a language native to the region.

“It was the first time a female voice was played in an audio van in the region.”

Gass also worked on a team visiting schools where the girls got the vaccines.

“It was a very proud moment for the health of these young girls to see them excited and involved in their own health, and that’s kind of the forefront of youth empowerment and female youth empowerment,” she said.

Gass said there have been multiple challenges on her journey, and a language barrier is the main one.

“A lot of people at my workplace don’t speak English, so it makes for a very challenging workday sometimes.”

As for Christmas, Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 because the country follows the Julian calendar.

Gass had a small gathering with friends to celebrate on Dec. 25.

“I gave my co-workers some gifts, and they loved them,” she said. “It was a really nice time.”

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