HPV vaccines become an option for girls in poorest countries

Girls in developing countries will receive vaccinations to protect against cervical cancer under a new international agreement.

HPV vaccines are a series of three injections available to females in Canada to help prevent cervical cancers caused by certain strains of human papilloma virus.

But of the 275,000 women who die each year worldwide from cervical cancer, 85 per cent live in the developing world, where incidence of HPV infection is higher and few women have access to screening such as Pap test, or to treatment, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

On Thursday, the GAVI Alliance — a group of donor governments including Canada, United Nations agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners — joined vaccine makers Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC to announce a program aimed at delivering affordable HPV vaccines to poor countries where childhood illnesses are major killers.

"Developing countries bear an increasing burden of cervical cancer and it is only right that our girls should have the same protection as girls in other countries," Dr. Richard Sezibera, secretary general of the East African community, GAVI board member and former Health Minister of Rwanda, said in a release.

"In Africa, where facilities to diagnose and treat cervical cancer are few and far between, HPV vaccines will mean the difference between life and death for so many women in the prime of their lives."

Under the new deal, HPV vaccines would be priced as low as $4.50 US per dose for girls aged nine to 13 in the poorest countries. In developed countries, the previous lowest public sector price was $13 US per dose, the GAVI Alliance said.

The group will support an HPV vaccine program in Kenya as early as this month. Ghana, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Tanzania are next on the list.

The project aims for those governments to prove they can set up a national system of medical staff, supplies and a distribution system that is well organized to roll out vaccines over the long term.

The goal is for the governments of those countries to show they can set up a national system — with medical staff, clinic supplies, distribution systems and supply management all well organized — to provide the vaccines over the long term.

As part of the program, girls will also be able to learn about nutrition, sexual health and HIV prevention.

The project aims to inoculate more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries by 2020, and establish a secure market for the vaccines.

Last month, a Canadian study suggested two doses of HPV vaccines may work as well as the current regimen of three for pre-adolescent girls. If confirmed, that would help bring down the cost for the people in both the developed and developing countries.