Most of us are infected with human papillomavirus within a few years of becoming sexually active, but because most infections clear up on their own, it never bothers us. For about 10 percent of infected women, however, precancer develops. And if that’s not treated, some of them will suffer—and perhaps die—from advanced cervical cancer.
I have talked with doctors all over the world who care for women in advanced stages of this disease and they have told me of the dreadful suffering these women experience, and the grief and helplessness their families feel. Yet cervical cancer is an almost fully preventable disease.
Vaccines save lives
Screening adult women for precancer is vitally important—one of my colleagues blogged about that a few weeks ago. And since 2006 we’ve had new preventive tools—safe and effective HPV vaccines.
That’s what I’m excited about. Today—World Cancer Day—the GAVI Alliance, an international organization that helps ensure children everywhere have access to new, lifesaving vaccines, made a long-awaited announcement. The group will subsidize HPV vaccine for eight low-income countries in Africa and Asia. This is something to celebrate because 88 percent of cervical cancer deaths happen in countries that are unable to pay the full cost of providing the vaccine themselves.
The countries to receive vaccine are Ghana, Kenya, Lao PDR, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania.
A plan to protect 30 million girls
GAVI estimates that 180,000 girls will be vaccinated this year in the first eight countries. By 2015, the plan is to expand support to 20 countries and vaccinate about a million girls. And by 2020, the organization wants to cover 40 countries and vaccinate about 30 million girls. This is a real boon for girls in low-income countries, very few of whom receive HPV vaccine now due to its cost.
PATH has been researching how best to design HPV vaccination programs to reach African, Asian, and Latin American girls who aren’t routinely seen by the health system. We’ve learned a lot and our findings are being used by many countries as they make plans for introducing the vaccine, training health staff, and mobilizing communities to protect their daughters. We’ll share those lessons with our partners in the countries that will soon receive the vaccine.
Protection no matter where you live
In the meantime, I can tell you that our friends and partners in Africa and Asia are very happy about GAVI’s announcement. They’ve seen the intense suffering cervical cancer causes their daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends. For them, the disease is a real threat, not the hypothetical risk it can appear to be in the United States.
In fact, with GAVI’s support, girls in some low-income countries may soon be better protected than girls in the United States, where only about 30 percent have been immunized. I made sure that my two daughters received the HPV vaccine as soon as it was available. As a nation we can do better, and we should emulate the commitment of our African and Asian friends to safeguarding women’s health.
- Dr. Jacqueline Sherris was formerly vice president of program strategy and impact at PATH.