HPV Vaccine Coming to the Developing World

There is big news from GAVI, the Gates-backed group that supports the provision of childhood vaccinations around the world. GAVI announced today that it will expand its vaccine programs to include the HPV vaccine, which guards against cervical cancer, and a vaccine against Rubella to promote maternal and child health.

“These two initiatives have huge potential impact for women and families in the developing world,” says GAVI’s CEO Seth Berkley in a statement. “The HPV vaccine is critical to women and girls in poorer countries because they usually do not have access to screening to prevent cervical cancer and treatment taken for granted in richer nations. Today, we have taken deliberate first steps to correct this inequity,” he added.

The HPV Vaccine is sometimes controversial here in the United States for silly reasons. Still, it is a routine vaccination for young adolescent women in wealthier countries.  In the developing world, though, the vaccine is just too expensive to be made widely available. That leaves women unnecessarily exposed to cervical cancer. HPV causes approximately 275,000 cervical cancer deaths each year, of which 88% occur in developing countries. This figure could increase to 430,000 by 2030 if action is not taken.

GAVI also announced today that it is rolling out a new rubella vaccine program, which it will combine with a measles vaccine in a single shot. Says GAVI: “If contracted by pregnant women, rubella can lead to multiple severe birth defects that cause lifelong disabilities. Some 90,000 birth defects occur each year in GAVI-eligible countries, equivalent to 80% of the global burden. It can also lead to miscarriage and stillbirth.  The plan is to reach 588 million children by 2015.”

GAVI is essentially a pool of funds raised by philanthropies, governments, the private sector–but also by selling bonds through a scheme known as the International Financing Facility for Immunizations.  Since 2000, it has raised over $7 billion for the purchase and provision of childhood vaccines like polio, measles, Hepatitis, Rotavirus, and others.

The success of the HPV vaccination program depends largely on the extent to which pharmaceutical companies are willing to lower their prices.  The two companies that make HPV vaccines, Mercke and GSK, are in now in negotiations with GAVI.  Merck has reportedly offered its Gardasil shot to GAVI at a discounted price of $5 per dose, implying a cost of $15 for a three-dose course.  A GAVI representative described this as “a good starting offer.”

If a decent price can be negotiated, GAVI predicts that 2 up to two million women and girls in nine countries could be protected from cervical cancer by 2015.  That, my friends, is a big, big deal.