Vaccine brings hope to millions

07 November 2005

It was news of the too-good-to-be-true kind.

A few short weeks ago, pharmaceutical giant Merck announced that it had developed a vaccine, Gardasil, that in the short term is 100% effective in blocking infection against four types of human papilloma virus (HPV), including HPV 16 and 18. At about the same time, Merck rival GlaxoSmithKline reported similar findings about a vaccine against HPV types 16 and 18 it has in the pipeline.

Together, HPV 16 and 18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers around the world. According to the World Health Organisation, about 510 000 cases of cervical cancer - the most common cancer among women in developing countries - are reported worldwide each year, nearly 80% of those in developing countries, including 68 000 in Africa.

The new vaccines, if they pan out, would be a godsend.

"It is an incredibly exciting development in medicine, and has the potential to drastically reduce or even eradicate cervical cancer," says Professor Lynette Denny of UCT's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. It's a topic close to Denny's heart - for nearly 10 years she has been running trials and clinics in Khayelitsha to find a low-tech alternative to the Pap smear, the standard test for the secondary prevention of cervical cancer.

But it may be too early to break out the champagne on the new vaccines just yet, she cautions.

For one thing, neither has a follow-up of longer than three years. Then there is a slew of other questions - like how long is the duration of protection afforded by the vaccines, are booster doses necessary, and can babies be vaccinated?

And, of course, there's also the issue of access. Both companies have invested billions in the projects, and would need to recoup their costs.

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