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HPV Vaccine: The Next Large-Scale Vaccination Drive Needed in India

Gynaecologist Dr Sharda Jain makes a case for including the HPV vaccine in the national vaccination program.

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India has made an indelible mark on the global vaccine map, through its long-standing history of excellence, capacity, and innovation in the field.

The country's national vaccination programme has been exceedingly successful in immunising large populations against illnesses including smallpox, polio, measles, and most recently COVID-19.

Emphasising the powerful role of immunisation in lessening the impact of life-threatening diseases, the HPV vaccine stands out as a compelling example.

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Why Is HPV So Concerning?

HPV is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer in women globally, especially those over the age of 30. 

Cervical cancer stands as the second most prevalent cancer among women in India, contributing significantly to the global burden of this disease, as per government reports.

According to GLOBOCAN 2020, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) estimated a staggering 1,23,907 new cervical cancer cases and 77,348 deaths in India.

Cervical cancer remains a formidable challenge for women in India, but it is not insurmountable.

Routine screenings like pap tests and seeking regular health check-ups and consulting healthcare professionals play a crucial role in detecting precancerous lesions, allowing for early intervention and prevention of cervical cancer.

Despite the government's efforts to implement nationwide cancer screening programs, the prevalence of HPV remains high due to low awareness and limited access to vaccination.

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How Can India Better Tackle the Crisis?

HPV vaccines have proven to be highly effective in preventing infection and, subsequently, reducing the risk of cervical cancer.

According to an ICMR study, providing vaccination can lead to a reduction of 50 percent in cervical cancer cases.

Moreover, if the vaccination is given at an early age of 16-17 years to a large section of the population, there is the potential to bring down the incidence of cervical cancer by 80 percent.

It is going to be absolutely a game changer once 90 percent of adolescent girls will get vaccinated according to the WHO's advice to the government of India.

Combining this vaccination strategy with mass screening for cervical cancer, followed by appropriate treatment, holds the promise of achieving a substantial reduction in cervical cancer cases. 

These numbers underline the urgent need for increased awareness and proactive measures to curb the impact of this devastating disease. 

In a promising advance in its fight against cervical cancer, India launched its first Indigenous quadrivalent human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine – Cervavac.

During the interim budget 2024 announcement, finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman said that cervical cancer vaccination in girls between 9-14 years will be encouraged.

The hope is that the commitment will soon extend to including the vaccine in the national vaccination programme.

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Doing so would be a step towards making these vaccines more widely available and accessible, especially in rural areas, which is imperative for combating the prevalence of HPV.

Currently, one dose of the vaccine (two doses are recommended) can cost anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 11,000.

Moreover, it would help to direct more resources to spreading awareness, busting stigma and busting myths around HPV and cervical cancer, along with educating people about he vaccine.

'It Must Be A Collective Effort'

India's rich history with vaccines is a testament to the country's commitment to global health.

Protecting against the virus strains most likely to cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva, the HPV vaccine will help India, and other nations, to make strides towards this goal. 

A lot of combined efforts involving increased awareness, easily accessible screening programs, and HPV vaccine campaigns have helped lighten the burden of cervical cancer.  

However, it is essential to maintain and expand these efforts to ensure continued success in the fight against this disease.

It is crucial for healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public to work together in raising awareness about the importance of HPV vaccination.  

Through widespread access to vaccines, we will be able to achieve significant strides in preventing cervical cancer and improving women's health in India. 

(Dr Sharda jain is an Obstetrician-Gynaecologist at Life Care Centre, a leading IVF centre in Delhi.)

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Topics:  Cervical Cancer   HPV Vaccine 

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