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Effort Underway to Get Cervical Cancer Vaccine to Developing Countries

A couple of weeks ago, the world's first vaccine against a cancer that affects women was hailed as a medical breakthrough. Non-profit agencies and a billionaire philanthropist are now trying to ensure that women in developing countries will also have access to the vaccine.

Earlier this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine that can protect women from the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which causes most types of cervical cancer.

Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Alex Azar made the announcement. "We can now include the worst types of HPV and most cervical cancer in the list of diseases that no one need suffer or die from ever again."

Except that women will continue to suffer and die from cervical cancer unless they get the vaccine before they become sexually active.

The vaccine -- Gardisil -- has proven to be 100 percent effective in clinical trials involving women around the world. But the vaccine is expensive. And it is needed the most in developing countries where women are less likely to be screened for cervical cancer.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has initiated a five-year drive to get this vaccine to women in poor countries.

Dr. Regina Rabinovich, the director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation, provides statistics. "We know that at least 270, 000 women die every year due to cervical cancer. We also know that this is probably a significant undercount because many women die without any diagnosis, particularly in the poorest areas of the world."

The Gates Foundation has granted nearly $28 million for research in four countries: India, Peru, Uganda and Vietnam. Dr. Rabinovich says the programs will work with the ministries of health in each of these countries to find the best way to educate the public and distribute the vaccine.

She says that at the end of five years health officials and health care providers will have a wealth of information about how to help protect women in poor countries from this disease. "I think we're going to have experiences, learning and teaching materials in four countries as to what worked, what didn't, what did the countries care about,” she asks. “Was it able to be utilized? What did the families think, and that can be compiled into where countries want to use it."

Health experts say the vaccine may prove to be the best hope for lowering the death toll from cervical cancer and could even make the numbers of women who get cervical cancer in developing countries as low as the number of women who get it in the developed world.