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Will cancer vaccine get to all women?

DEATHS from cervical cancer could jump fourfold to a million a year by 2050, mainly in developing countries. This could be prevented by soon-to-be-approved vaccines against the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer- but there are signs that opposition to the vaccines might lead to many preventable deaths. The trouble is that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted. So to prevent infection, girls will have to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, which could be a problem in many countries.

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

Meanwhile in developing countries, where 80 per cent of deaths from cervical cancer occur, social taboos may be even more powerful. The head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, N. K. Ganguly, says it will take a big educational effort to convince parents. Vaccinating men could be the best way to prevent the spread of HPV among women.

HPV is extremely common. Half of all sexually active women between 18 and 22 in the US are infected. Most cases clear up, but sometimes infection persists and can cause cancer decades later.

Deaths in the west have plummeted thanks to widespread screening to detect cancers early. But such screening is not widely available in developing countries. In many, populations are ageing: in India the number of women ove
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13-Apr-2005


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