Good news for India girls: New cervical cancer vaccine to be part of immunisation drive

Oncologists and gynaecologists have welcomed the vaccine, and asked the Central government to provide them for free reduce cervical cancer.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Sep 01, 2022 | 2:37 PMUpdatedSep 01, 2022 | 6:01 PM

Indigenous vaccine for cervical cancer launched on Thursday

India’s first — and locally-developed, at that — cervical cancer vaccine, the Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus Vaccine (qHPV), was launched on Thursday, 1 September.

Oncologists and gynaecologists said they were excited about it, and that this vaccine — also called Cervavac — was a huge step toward reducing the burden of the second-most widely spread cancer in the country.

“This vaccine has been launched 14 years after the introduction of two foreign HPV vaccines. It is an excellent move by the Union government and the Serum Institute of India,” said Dr Sowmya Sangamesh, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at BGS Gleneagles Global Hospital in Bengaluru.

“The burden of cervical cancer can be reduced by almost 80 percent if the Indian government includes this as a part of it’s universal immunisation programme,” she added.

Speaking at the launch of the vaccine at IIC Delhi, DBT Secretary and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) Chairperson Dr Rajesh Gokhale said, “It is a science success.”

Why cervical cancer kills many women

Oncologists claim that cervical cancer causes one death every eight minutes in India.

According to Dr V Annapurna, a senior consultant and HOD of the Department of Gynecologic Oncology at Sri Shankara Cancer Hospital and Research Centre in Bengaluru, “As per Globocan 2020, cervical cancer kills 77,348 women every year in India. These are rough estimates. The actual values may be different.”

Quoting numbers, Dr Kumar Gubbala, a senior consultant gynaecological oncologist who heads the Gynaecological Cancer Management Team at Apollo Proton Cancer Centre in Chennai, said, “In India, there are nearly 1.25 lakh cases (of cervical cancer) every year. We have no screening system, and hence we don’t detect cancers early. I see young patients 35-40 years old coming in with cervical cancer at advanced stages, leading to death.”

He said cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 50. In developed countries, it is diagnosed fast due to pap-smear tests and HPV tests as part of screening programmes.

The only government cancer hospital in Karnataka, the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology Cancer Research and Training Centre, sees around 1,500 cases of cervical cancer every year.

“We had recommended that HPV vaccines be administered as part of the immunisation programme. If the government can bear the cost and give these vaccines for free, the burden of this cancer can be reduced drastically,” opined Dr Ramachandra C, the director of Kidwai Hospitals.

How to take the HPV vaccine drive forward?

Doctors bar for awareness-based and school-based vaccination programmes. They believe that only regular screening and vaccination can bring down cases of cervical cancer.  “Catching them young is the key,” said Kumar.

He explained that while a majority of the countries extend their immunisation programmes to only 15 years, India needs to work towards the situation here and extend the vaccination programs up to the age of 21.

He said, “Premarital sex in India is still not as common as in other countries. The Indian government can definitely look into extending the vaccination drive to 21 years of age.”

Kumar added, “The government already has the estimation of the number of young girls aged 9-15 years. It can be administered in schools. The vaccine has to be given in two doses each with a gap of six months. Several countries have approved it. India must do this as well, or respective state governments could come forward to take this step.”

What is Cervavac?

Currently, there are two vaccines for the human papillomavirus — Gardasil and Cervarix.

Gardasil costs ₹2,800 per dose, but it is not available widely. Cervarix costs ₹3,500 per dose and has to be taken in two doses.

Cervavac was manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII).

Annapurna explained, “The cost and accessibility of the vaccine have been a major hindrance all these years. The SII producing this vaccine is a great boon to us !”

Doctors from the fraternity believe that the Central government might make the vaccine available by the end of the year at the price range of ₹250-400.

Speaking to reporters after the launch event of the vaccine on Thursday, SII CEO Adar Poonawala said, “The cervical cancer vaccine will be affordable and made available in the range of ₹200-400. However, the final price is yet to be decided.”

Meanwhile, the first doses of the vaccine are expected to be made available at government setups, with private partners coming into the picture later, said Poonawala.

What causes cervical cancer?

Experts at the launched of SII manufactured CERVAVAC was launched by Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) Science & Technology Jitendra Singh at IIC Delhi on Thursday

Experts n Cervical cancer participating at the panel discussion on ‘Paving the way to elimination of cervical cancer in India. (Supplied)

Cervical cancer is a form of cancer that affects the cervix area — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Women of all ages are at risk of this type of cancer.

Usually, it is a prolonged infection caused by four kinds of HPV.

Kumar explained, “The commonest varieties of HPV that causes this cancer are 6,11,16,18. This particular qHPV vaccine targets all four of these viruses. Hence, the reduction in the burden due to the newly launched vaccine can be expected to be nearly 90 percent. It has an antibody response that is nearly a thousand times higher than the baseline against all target HPV types and across age groups.”

This vaccine, Annapurna said, works best when given to sexually naive adolescent girls, because most cervical cancer cases are caused by sexually transmitted HPV.”

Sangamesh said the vaccine could be very beneficial if given before girls become sexually active.

Cervical cancer symptoms

Cervical cancer is a slow-growing type of cancer that takes anywhere between 10 and 20 years to present. It is curable if detected early.

Its symptoms include:

  • Unusual bleeding even after periods, after sex, or after menopause
  • Severe pain or cramps in the cervix region
  • Frequent urination, and pain and burning sensation during urination
  • Constant backache and swelling in legs
  • Smelly vaginal discharge.

Are men at risk of HPV?

Men can be the carriers of the virus and spread it to their sex partners.

HIV-positive men having sex with other men can transfer the infection, leading to risks of anal, penile, and throat cancers associated with a prolonged HPV infection.

The incidence of oropharyngeal cancers in men has increased in recent times.

Genital warts and anal cancers can also be prevented with the HPV vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends HPV vaccination for young boys aged 9-12 years as well.