Global Alliance To Purchase Cervical Cancer Vaccines For Underprivileged Girls
November 18, 2011

Global Alliance To Purchase Cervical Cancer Vaccines For Underprivileged Girls

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization announced on Thursday an initiative to purchase cervical cancer vaccines for up to 2 million women and girls in nine developing nations by 2015.

The plan is contingent upon negotiating a final price deal with manufacturers, the group said following a meeting this week in Bangladesh, where GAVI´s board gave the green light to the program.

The vaccine would immunize girls and women against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, a disease that kills one woman every two minutes, GAVI said.

Nina Schwalbe, GAVI´s managing director for policy and performance, told Reuters that discussions were ongoing with the makers of the world's two approved HPV vaccines:  U.S.-based Merck & Co Inc. and Britain´s GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix are designed for use in girls aged between 10 and 13 years.

While adolescent girls are commonly vaccinated against HPV in Europe and the U.S., nearly 90 percent of the 275,000 annual cervical cancer deaths occur in poor nations, where cervical screening programs are virtually non-existent.

Experts say this figure could rise to 430,000 by 2030 if action is not taken.

"For women in developing countries this is the only option," Schwalbe told Reuters.

"The introduction of an HPV vaccine is a major public health breakthrough -- but to date this vaccine has only been available for women who live in developed countries."

Geneva-based GAVI was set up more than ten years ago with funding from governments and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates.  The move to endorse HPV vaccination marks a somewhat new direction for the group, which has until now been focused on vaccinating infants.

The first developing nations which will likely be Rwanda and Vietnam will likely be the first developing nations to see the program become operational, which could happen as early as 2013, GAVI said.

Merck said earlier this year it would offer GAVI its Gardasil shot at a deeply discounted price of $5 per dose, implying a cost of $15 for a three-dose course, something Schwalbe called a “good starting offer."

GSK has not made a public offer, but Jean Stephenne, head of the group's vaccines business, told Reuters he looked forward to discussing how to best provide Cervarix to the GAVI program.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the GAVI program, along with a separate initiative by GAVI to open a funding window for vaccines against the rubella virus, which can lead to birth defects and miscarriages.

GAVI´s decision to move forward with its HPV and rubella projects follows a successful meeting in June in London, when international donors pledged $4.3 billion to help the organization with its work.

GAVI says it has prevented more than 5.5 million child deaths in the last ten years by bulk-purchasing vaccines against diseases such as pneumococcal pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae type b, whooping cough, tetanus, measles and rotavirus.

In a few years, GAVI will decide whether to purchase the world's first malaria vaccine -- GSK´s RTS, S or Mosquirix -- which is designed exclusively for use in developing countries.

In recent clinical trials the vaccine reduced by half the risk of five- to 17-month-olds getting the mosquito-borne disease.  However, the shot is not a cure-all, and is less effective than vaccines against common infections such as polio and measles.

Schwalbe said the RTS,S results to date were promising, but that GAVI is waiting to see the outcome of a clinical trial using the vaccine in infants aged six to 12 weeks before making any final decisions on the matter.

The trial is expected wrap up within a year.  If all goes well, GSK believes the vaccine could be available in 2015.

Additional information about GAVI´s cervical cancer vaccination program can be viewed here.