Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cervical Cancer: could Pharma companies do more?

Cervical cancer is linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV) and can be prevented by innoculation with a vaccine or detected early by Pap smears. It is not very common in the USA or Western Europe because the introduction of frequent pap smears has reduced its incidence quite considerably.

It is, however, much more common in the developing world. For example, it kills 33,000 women in Latin America and the Caribbean a year, according to a new study. Based on the western experience, better screening and an affordable vaccine for girls could reduce the deaths, which could increase to 70,000 a year by 2030 if nothing is done, according to a recent study.

The study was sponsored by the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others. It compiled 15 years of research and is the first major assessment of the effects of the human papillomavirus in the region. The goal of the study was to estimate the burden of the disease on the region and to calculate how many years of life could be saved in each country with Pap smears or affordable vaccines. It is the first major assessment of the effects of the human papillomavirus in the region.

The virus, which is sexually transmitted, and causes most cases of cervical cancer, infects 20 percent to 30 percent of young women in the region, as well as 20 percent of young men.

Not enough cases are detected early, however, so it is a common cause of cancer death in developing countries. In the United States, where Pap smears are a routine part of medical care paid for by health insurance, just 2.5 percent of all cancer deaths among women are from cervical cancer. In Haiti, 49 percent are. In Latin America, the countries with the highest rates were Haiti, Bolivia, Paraguay, Belize, Peru, Guyana, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela (see map above).

A vaccine that prevents infection by the most dangerous strains of the virus costs $360 in the United States, far more than the health systems of most Latin American countries can afford.

"We found scenarios where from an economic perspective, widespread adoption of an HPV vaccine makes sense, but we also wanted to be clear that even at a reduced price, the vaccine would have significant financial implications for national health care systems," said Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Matus, Chief of the Immunisation Unit, PAHO.

Recently, the former Merck CEO, Roy Vagelos noted at a conference that he wished more companies would do more philanthropy. Merck and GSK are two companies who market cervical cancer vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix). I wonder what efforts they are making globally in Latam and Africa where the disease is very prevalent and preventable?


NY Times
Executive Summary of the study (downloadable report)

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