We already have vaccines that have been shown to safely and effectively prevent 70% of all cervical cancersMost of us have experienced the devastating and fatal consequences of cancer within our close circle of family and friends. And many of us have asked ourselves—angry and powerless—what more could have been done to prevent the disease. Fortunately, the situation is not always hopeless. Quite the contrary. There are vaccines that have proven effective in preventing infectious diseases associated with certain cancers: for example, vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B infection, two viruses that cause cervical cancer and certain types of liver cancer, respectively.
Infection with HPV is responsible for almost 100% of all cases of cervical cancer. It is a very common and highly contagious sexually transmitted infection. If we can prevent infection with HPV, we can prevent cervical cancer. And we already have vaccines that have been shown to safely and effectively prevent HPV infection, which could therefore prevent 70% of all cervical cancers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends HPV vaccination of all pre-adolescent girls aged 9-13 years. Early vaccination is recommended, before the start of sexual activity, because the vaccines are only effective before the person comes into contact with the virus.
Every year, over 500,000 women worldwide develop cervical cancer. Of these, about 266,000—that is, one every two minutes—die from the disease. Almost 90% of these deaths occur in developing countries, where access to screening programs and treatment is the exception. In those countries, cervical cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer among women, and those affected are typically active women in midlife who play a crucial role in the development of their communities. Thus, the introduction of vaccination against HPV in poor countries with high mortality rates from this disease is a global health priority and a visionary investment that will promote equity, improve women’s health and further development.
266,000 women—that is, one every two minutes—die every year from the disease The governments of the countries most affected, in collaboration with international organisations and agencies such as GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) and the WHO, have already started work on speeding up the introduction of the vaccine and negotiating affordable vaccine prices for these countries. However, introducing HPV vaccination in developing countries will present some challenges to their health systems, which are often fragile and resource-poor, shortcomings that may compromise the goal of achieving maximum vaccine coverage. The vaccine is generally administered in schools, which is not a usual venue for vaccination in these areas. Another problem is that many girls drop out of school around the age vaccination is recommended, sometimes to assume family responsibilities.
Adolescence is a critical time of life, when the opportunities that arise and the choices that are made determine the child’s future. In its 2014 annual report, the United Nations Population Fund highlighted that 1.8 billion people in the world today are aged between 10 and 24 years, making this group the largest global youth population ever in the history of the world. Adolescents matter. They matter a lot. And there is no time to lose. Investment in improving the prospects of young people, by introducing the HPV vaccine for example, will ensure them a better future, particularly in countries where health inequities are more pronounced.