URI professor wins prestigious grant to launch cervical cancer prevention campaign in West Africa using storytelling cloth

Grant is from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

KINGSTON, R.I., Nov. 6, 2014 – The bright yellow swirls on an African cloth designed by a local student could help prevent cervical cancer in the West African country of Mali.

That’s the remarkable conclusion of a University of Rhode Island research professor, whose nonprofit has been awarded $100,000 from the prestigious Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a public awareness campaign about the importance of getting vaccinated against the deadly cancer.

Dr. Annie De Groot, founder of the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS Vaccine Foundation, or GAIA VF, says she is “thrilled” to receive the grant, announced Nov. 4. De Groot is also 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.

“We are putting the power of storytelling to work to fight cancer,” says De Groot. “Faced with the overwhelming lack of knowledge about cervical cancer in Africa and the availability of a vaccine that effectively prevents it, we felt we had to do something that had immediate impact. And there is no better way to do that in West Africa than make a statement with a fashionable outfit.”

This story is uniquely Rhode Island, involving a storytelling fabric designed by a local vaccine researcher, a former student at the Rhode Island School of Design and a media campaign led by West African female musicians.

While driving past RISD on her way to work one day, De Groot, a worldwide vaccine expert, had a flash of inspiration: ask a student to help design a traditional African cloth to raise awareness in Mali about the connection between HPV, or human papillomavirus, and the prevention of cervical cancer.

She connected with Eliza Squibb, who graduated from RISD in 2013 with a degree in textiles and spent time in North Africa and the Peruvian Amazon studying traditional textiles.

After months of work, Squibb designed a stunning pattern that shows healthy uteruses, surrounded by spiky, scary viruses. The repeating design creates a West African pagne pattern that tells the story of HPV-associated cervical cancer, how HPV is transmitted, the importance of screening and the potential for a vaccine to protect against cancer.

Squibb and De Groot went to West Africa in July to show the fabric to doctors, scientists, health care workers and local women. The response was overwhelming.

One man made it into a shirt the next day. “They loved it,” says Squibb, who lives in Providence and grew up in Camden, Maine. “Not only did they want to wear the cloth right away, but they also wanted the vaccine.”

In West Africa, textiles are used to communicate and tell stories, almost like social media. Squibb says her pattern shows flowering, healthy cervixes, next to banners in French that say, “I protect myself. I take care of myself. I get vaccinated.” (French is the most common language in West Africa.) Disguised in the vivid print are images of fallopian tubes and uteruses surrounding a near-invasion of HPV viruses embedded in abnormal cancerous cells.

“Annie and I came up with the pattern together,” says Squibb. “We had very specific things we wanted to communicate.”

The next step in the nonprofit’s HPV vaccine initiative is to build awareness, followed by a vaccination campaign. Plans are to offer every young woman who gets the vaccine a pagne once she completes the three vaccinations. Wearing the cloth ensures that she “takes on a personal role in preventing cervical cancer,” says Squibb. The cloth will be printed at the Malian Textile Company in Bamako, Mali, although De Groot and Squibb are also interested in getting the cloth printed and distributed through well-recognized global pagne print houses.

Besides making it available to women and girls who get the vaccine, Squibb says that several well-known female musicians Oumou Sangaré and Bah Kouyaté, from Mali, and Dobet Gnahoré , from the Ivory Coast, have been asked to wear the fabric when they perform.

“These are women musicians who speak out for women’s rights,” Squibb says. “We believe that they will be effective at helping us get the word out since they’ll be able to show that stopping cervical cancer can be a powerful fashion statement.”

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 DeGroot’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 lack of knowledge about the connection between HPV and cervical cancer in Africa, specifically, and in the world in general, is shocking,” says De Groot. “We share Melinda Gates’ concern that this major killer of women is spreading due to ignorance. If we can help stop cervical cancer using a storytelling cloth, wouldn’t that just be amazing.”

Click here for more information or GAIA Vaccine Foundation.

De Groot was recently named by VaccineNation as one of the most influential people in the vaccine industry.

As director of URI’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics (iCubed) at the URI Feinstein Providence Campus, De Groot and her colleagues apply cutting-edge bioinformatics tools to accelerate the development of vaccines for infectious diseases such as H7N9 influenza, HIV and tuberculosis. The institute is also working to develop treatments and therapies for tropical diseases, including Dengue, filariasis and malaria. Click here for more information about the iCubed.

The Grand Explorations grant was created when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed $100 million to encourage scientists worldwide to create groundbreaking solutions to our greatest health challenges. Launched in 2008, more than 1070 grants have been awarded to innovative, early-stage products in more than 60 countries. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have been the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Pictured above:

Eliza Squibb, executive director of the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS Vaccine Foundation, or GAIA VF, with Madame Rokia Sangaré (on left) and Madame Fatoumata Diarra in Mali. Photo courtesy of the foundation. The foundation supports a range of 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 countries in development.

Dr. Annie De Groot, founder of the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS Vaccine Foundation and a research professor at the University of Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Annie De Groot.