Fighting cervical cancer around the world

Will poor women worldwide have access to the new HPV vaccine?

Published December 13, 2006 4:15PM (EST)

If you've been watching much TV lately -- especially shows like, say, "Veronica Mars" -- you've probably seen Merck's ads touting Gardasil, the company's new HPV vaccine. The "One Less" ad campaign shows girls of various races and ethnicities playing basketball, dancing and vehemently asserting that they don't plan on getting the disease, to convey "a strong and positive message that is designed to empower them to want to become (or help their daughters want to become) 'one less' person who will battle cervical cancer," according to a Merck press release. Grammatical snags aside, it's a pretty motivating message, and the frequency with which these well-designed spots are running is a good indication that the company plans to sell plenty of Gardasil in the near future.

But with the three-shot cycle costing around $360, how are poor women supposed to become "one less"? As we noted back in August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Gardasil be covered by the federal Vaccines for Children program, which should help disadvantaged young women get the vaccine stateside, but internationally it's another story. On Tuesday, representatives from public health agencies, pharma companies, nongovernmental organizations and philanthropic foundations convened in London to figure out how to get the vaccine to women in poor countries, where it's most urgently needed, ABC News reports.

Given that 90 percent of cervical cancer cases occur in the developing world, and that the disease is usually fatal if left untreated, the strategies dreamed up at this week's conference are potential lifesavers. But the goal of getting as many women vaccinated as possible, as quickly as possible, is at odds with strategic hurdles like getting results from vaccine trials in poor countries and assessing whether social barriers will discourage women from getting vaccinated. ABC News notes that "the lag time between the discovery of a new vaccine in the West and its implementation worldwide, which often coincides with development of a cheaper version of the original, has typically been at least 10 to 15 years." The best idea to come out of the London confab so far seems to be the suggestion that a global vaccination partnership called the GAVI alliance would subsidize the cost of the vaccine "in the short term, if in the long term it became affordable," as one representative put it. But first, GAVI would have to deem the HPV vaccine a high priority and come up with the funding, so even this preliminary plan remains up in the air.

More than 500,000 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed worldwide last year, making the disease the second most common cancer in women. With this in mind, we're crossing our fingers that the conference participants heed International Planned Parenthood Federation official Nothemba Simelela, who told the group, "With a technology like this vaccine, the world has a moral obligation to make sure it reaches the women who need it." We'll keep you posted.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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