HPV Vaccine Can Cut Cervical Cancer Cases by 90%, Proves Vital Study
The vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been one of the most pioneering medical breakthroughs of our time. HPV is estimated to cause most cervical cancers in women; a disease that kills more than 300,000 a year.
Now, a first-of-its-kind real-world study found that the HPV vaccine can cut cervical cancer cases by 90%, proving what scientists have known for a while: that the vaccine is one of the first ones we have that almost definitively prevents a form of cancer. And yet, for such an important medical marvel, it remains not only poorly administered, but poorly understood.
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted viruses. Of the 100 or so viruses, around 13 are known to cause cancer. And therein lies the problem. In India, there is a widespread perception that women don’t need to — indeed, shouldn’t need to — receive the vaccine until they are “married,” a euphemism for being sexually active. But the stigma around the virus is increasing incidences of cervical cancer since viruses cause a majority of cervical cancers.
Cervical cancer is the second-most prevalent cancer in women in India, and one woman dies of it every eight minutes. “No woman should die from cervical cancer. We have the technical, medical, and policy tools and approaches to eliminate it,” the World Health Organization notes. The two most robust strategies so far are the HPV vaccine and regular screenings. Against medical and public health ethics, however, administrators and practitioners don’t treat it with the urgency it deserves.
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Experts recommend taking the HPV vaccine very young, between the ages of 9 to 26, for people of all genders, to reduce the risks of transmission of HPV — it can also prevent cancers in boys and men.
Since the vaccine doesn’t treat existing viruses in the body, experts recommend taking it before initiating sexual activity. According to the new Lancet study, the vaccine has the potential to eradicate cervical cancer. It would require political will and unwavering medical ethics; both of which serve as obstacles in India.
Despite research suggesting for a long time that the vaccine can lower the risks of HPV leading to cervical cancer, the idea of administering it on a mass scale remains taboo. Misplaced notions of honor and women’s morality stand in the way of many people having access to the life-saving intervention.
Previous research has shown that there is poor awareness about HPV and cervical cancers among young people in India. The study also advocated for the HPV vaccine to be incorporated into the National Immunization Programme. However, this has not yet come to pass.
The idea that it would lead to sexual promiscuity is one factor, according to the study. Indeed, in 2018, the health ministry made a decision not to include the vaccine in the National Immunization Programme. This was reportedly accompanied by an RSS-affiliated organization’s letter to the Prime Minister, calling the vaccine’s inclusion an “unmitigated disaster.”
As a result, clinicians often shirk their duties in keeping the patient’s health a priority and give more importance to dated and sexist societal considerations instead.
“Part of the problem is that women’s health has often been reduced to maternal health… But, especially in an aging population, we should be talking about [the] health of women beyond reproductive health,” Anant Bhan, a researcher on bioethics, global health, and policy, told Scroll.