BANGKOK— One of the world’s leading immunization groups is launching a new program aimed at vaccinating girls in Laos against human papillomavirus, or HPV, to curb rising rates of cervical cancer. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) said developing countries in South East Asia, such as Laos and Burma, still face major challenges in implementing vaccination programs.
The three-injection vaccination costs about $120 per shot in the United States and is typically given to girls nine to 13 years old.
In Laos, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization has been able to reduce the cost to less than $5 per shot, making it feasible to protect women against the virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
In Laos about 500 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer triggered by HPV. As many as half of them are expected to die from the cancer.
GAVI Alliance deputy chief executive Helen Evans said the HPV vaccination project being launched this week in Laos follows other programs in place in Africa and South Asia. "This is a vaccine that's incredibly effective and can prevent about 70 percent of the cancers," she explained. "And as I said, cervical cancer is becoming the number one killer of women so ironically as maternal mortality is dropping because of other interventions, deaths from women in child bearing age, parenting age, is rising."
According to data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), Laos has a maternal mortality rate more than double the global average.
Laos is one of several countries that qualify for assistance from the GAVI Alliance. The alliance brings together developing countries and donor governments, WHO, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Bank, the vaccine industry and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Since its launch in 2000, the group has helped support the immunization of some 370 million children in developing countries, and helped prevent more than 5.5 million future deaths from diseases such as Hepatitis B, influenza, measles, whooping cough, rotavirus and polio.
GAVI's Helen Evans in South East Asia said logistical problems and other issues remain a challenge for health policy makers. "Vaccination is perhaps the best investment a country can make in their children's health. Healthy children are able to take the benefit of education, they grow up to be adults, productive adults, so its poverty reduction, its social economic development investment," she said.
Indonesia and Burma face challenges in vaccine delivery despite recent progress. Indonesia’s five million annual births, spread over the country’s 6,000 islands, make it difficult to carry out comprehensive vaccinations.
In Indonesia, GAVI partnered with a local pharmaceutical company to produce a pentavalent vaccination that protects children against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis and influenza.
Evans said Burma is still adjusting to an outpouring of international assistance following its political reforms. Its health budget, long neglected under past military-led governments, has been substantially increased. She added that the challenge for Burma now is to ensure that local staff are effectively trained to immunize.
Evans said workers are also trying to conduct health surveys in often remote and difficult regions to successfully target future immunization needs.