HPV vaccine in universal immunisation could bring up old fears

That the Central health ministry is planning to roll out the vaccine to counter the human papilloma virus (HPV) a part of its universal immunisation programme is bound to bring up an already controversy ridden debate about the safety and the efficacy of the vaccine in India, given its chequered past. HPV, which can cause cervical cancer has been a leading cause of concern for health specialists around the globe, leading to a push for the vaccine. However, a number of health activists in India have been opposing this move by the government on grounds of the available vaccine’s safety.

Cervical cancer is the second most cause of cancer among women in India. Chances of contracting it can be significantly reduced by regular screening, something experts have been strongly calling for, but has proved difficult to implement in India’s public healthcare system. There are two vaccines available in India — Gardasil marketed by Merck and Cervarix marketed by Glaxosmithkline. GAVI, The Vaccine Alliance, and international group supporting vaccines in different countries, has reportedly offered India $500 million to roll out the HPV vaccine along with others.

GAVI has also supported the HPV vaccine across countries in Africa, and in Bangladesh, evaluating the impact in these countries. However, in August, health activists had reportedly written to the ministry to stop the introduction of the HPV vaccine to the immunisation programme, saying that the European Medical Agency was still reviewing the vaccine and that both the available vaccines’ clinical trials were lacking. The HPV vaccine brings up bad memories for many concerned as in 2009, in a study sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seven of the 24,777 adolescent girls participating, most from adivasi areas in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, died. Experts till this day dispute the fact that their deaths were linked to the vaccine. However, the damage was done, and the Indian Council of Medical Research put a stop to the study. Later, new rules were drafted for the introduction of drugs and for clinical trials.

In December itself, an article in the science journal Nature, upheld the need for an HPV vaccine, and for dispelling this mistrust surrounding it. It also said that the European Medical Agency had confirmed the vaccine’s safety, thus weakening the case of those opposing the vaccine.

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