The new vaccine helps to protect girls by preventing infections of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes around 70% of cervical cancer cases. Introduced in the UK five years ago, it is now being extended to developing countries through the support of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).
Laos is one of the latest developing nations to set up a pilot programme for the vaccine with help from GAVI, which will fund vaccines for around 20,000 girls over the next two years. Though the vaccine can cost as much as GBP 200 when given privately in wealthy nations, GAVI has negotiated a price of less than GBP 10 for developing countries. The government of Laos is also making a small financial contribution and funding the cost of the nurses and vaccine distribution.
A reporter from the BBC went to witness some of the first vaccines being given to girls in this poor south-east Asian country. For one 13-year old, Khonekham, the chance to receive the vaccine was especially poignant, since her grandmother had died from the illness. Speaking to the reporter, Khonekham said that even though “the family did everything it could” for her grandmother, “I remember she was in a lot of pain”. The youngster was therefore very proud to be one of the first to be immunised.
No national screening programme
As in many developing countries such as Zambia, Laos lacks a national screening programme which would detect signs of the illness early. Therefore, in most cases, by the time the cancer is diagnosed, it is too late to treat it effectively. One doctor told the BBC that since most of her patients are diagnosed very late, all she can do is “send them home to die”.
According to a spokesperson from GAVI, around 275,000 women die each year worldwide from cervical cancer, with around eight in every ten deaths occurring in the developing world. Introducing the vaccine into as many developing nations as possible therefore represents a “significant commitment to women’s health”.
One 32-year old mother in Laos was lucky to be diagnosed with cervical cancer while it was still at an early stage. After surgery, she has been given a 95% chance that her cancer will not recur. With two girls aged five and three, the mother says she feels “lucky to be alive” and intends to make sure both her daughters receive the new vaccine.