Cervical cancer still a major killer, in spite of effective vaccines

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Although screening for and effective treatment of cervical cancer makes it one of the most preventable types of cancers, it still causes 275,000 deaths each year, 85 percent in developing countries. And this number is predicted to reach 430,000 by 2030. With the 2006 launch of the first vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), an infection that causes 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, the death toll has the potential to be reversed, especially if girls in low and middle-income countries can be immunized. (A second vaccine was approved in 2007).

The HPV vaccine has become part of the national immunization schedule of 38 countries as of 2011, with vaccination programs being supported through schools or family doctors. However, these programs did not reach low-income countries that are faced with a triple whammy, according to Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI Alliance an international vaccine consortium which funds vaccines for children in the world s poorest countries. They have a higher incidence of HPV infection, there is usually no good screening programme in place, and if they do get cervical cancer they don t have good treatment options.

With the goal of supporting the vaccination of 30 million girls against HPV by 2030, the GAVI Alliance hopes to reduce this death toll. They will be starting pilot projects in Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Tanzania this year. But there are many barriers facing these programs, as there is no existing system in place to deliver vaccines, meaning that collaborations must be developed with education ministries and cancer control and reproductive health programs.

Dr. Kimberley Fox of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation at the World Health Organization adds, This vaccine has been a sensitive issue in many countries, because it relates to reproductive health. Communications with communities, schools, teachers, parents and girls are really crucial to ensure acceptance of vaccine. They have to understand what the vaccine is, and that its about preventing cancer.

It is also worth adding that more should be done to make sure that girls in developed countries including our own receive this vaccine. ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross noted that only about one-third of girls in the U.S. receive all three doses of the vaccine, according to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011. Given the fact that cervical cancer is one of the very few cancers that can be prevented with a vaccine, that is real tragedy.