Dr Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer of the GAVI Alliance, asks “how is it that Rwanda, among the world’s poorest countries – and still recovering from a brutal civil war – is able to protect its teenage girls against cancer more effectively than the G-8 countries?”. The answer is that Rwanda has vaccinated 93 percent of its teenager girls against HPV, the family of viruses that cause all cervical cancer, many cases of penile cancer in male sex partners and many cases of genital warts. By contrast, the US has vaccinated about a third of eligible girls. In parts of Europe, the figures are worse. This is particularly tragic because we know that the vaccines can prevent about 8 in 10 cases of cervical cancer.
All of these countries have, of course, done better than India. While almost all girls from middle class families are protected by shots from private GPs or paediatricians, the life-saving vaccines are unavailable in the public sector. In a powerful earlier op-ed piece, Seth Berkley talked about the way that Indian media and politicians had blocked HPV vaccines in India’s public sector and, conveniently ignored “context and fact to pursue their own agenda”
Every vaccinated girl helps improve the health of the community as well as to protect herself, as we reported here over summer. Even though only a third of American girls had been vaccinated, infections there fell by over half.
Seth can’t really explain the Rwandan success and the dismal performance of the industrialised countries. He runs through a few of the sillier myths that American and European parents sometimes indulge and notes the depressing truth that, “failure to reach the 80% coverage mark means that 50,000 American girls alive today will develop cervical cancer, as will another 4,400 girls with each year of delay.” In India, the figures will be much worse: India has the highest number of cervical cancer deaths in the world — over a quarter of the global total. Over 70,000 Indian women die every year from the disease and the number is growing. In 20 years time, it may be 100,000 a year and at least 80,000 of those deaths would have been prevented had India just followed the example of one of the world’s poorest countries.