Our Vote to End Cervical Cancer

By Lance Armstrong and John Seffrin
Thursday, October 30, 2008; 12:00 AM

Preventing, treating and defeating cancer are among the greatest scientific challenges and personal triumphs of our time. And right now, we have the power to save our mothers, sisters and daughters from a type of cancer that claims a life every two minutes globally.

Cervical cancer progresses over decades, attacking women who might never know they are sick until it is too late. It often hits women in their prime, when they're raising children, working hard and fully engaged in family, community and economic life, making these unnecessary deaths especially tragic.

Cervical cancer is unique among cancers because we know one of the main causes for it: certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV). We also know how to prevent it. There are now vaccines available that, when given to girls before they become sexually active, will later protect them from the potentially deadly strains of HPV.

In the United States and other wealthy countries, HPV vaccines, along with screening and early detection technologies, have become the standard. Yet cervical cancer remains the number one cause of cancer death among women in the developing world, because they do not have access to these technologies.

It's hard to stop all HPV strains from spreading, but we can stop certain ones from killing.

Today in Geneva, the Board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), which includes a U.S. representative, will decide whether to commit to making HPV vaccines available to girls in the 72 poorest countries. GAVI is an international alliance of governments, international agencies and nongovernmental organizations that helps bring needed vaccines to countries that can't otherwise afford them. Once GAVI commits to a vaccine, it works with leaders in the public and private sectors to deliver its promise. But without a GAVI commitment, this lifesaving vaccine will remain the privilege of the few, rather than being deployed on the front lines of this terrible disease.

We have the data to prove that providing HPV vaccines to the poorest regions of the world is feasible, affordable and necessary. GAVI calculates that the cost of HPV vaccine at $10 per dose is possible, and in all likelihood, far less. The purchase price for GAVI-eligible countries will be $.30 per dose, which even the poorest of countries can pay. The difference will be covered through international financing and dramatic discounts from the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccine. This combination of need, and a simple, affordable solution, makes the path forward clear.

To be sure, no new innovation or technology is without some controversy, and the HPV vaccine is no exception. Some concerns have been raised over the impact the vaccine may have on sexual behavior; however, there is no evidence that the introduction of this or any other effective vaccine leads to changes in human behavior, including sexual activity.

At the same time, we recognize that HPV vaccine alone is not enough to eradicate cervical cancer in the coming decades. We need to bring simple new screening technologies to women for whom the vaccine is not appropriate. Vaccines are most effective when they are given to girls before they become sexually active and contract the virus. For all other women, screening tools, as well as treatments for both precancerous cervical abnormalities and cancer itself, must be made more widely available. In places where screening and treatment may always be out of reach, vaccination is paramount.

Indeed, it is one of the miracles of our young century that cervical cancer prevention now comes in a vial. The HPV vaccine is built on Nobel-recognized science. It is effective. It is safe. It is affordable. And it is needed most in the places where it is hardest to get it.

The United States has another opportunity to show our belief and leadership in the powers of innovation and technology, by this commitment to improve lives of families, communities and nations. We urge our delegation to GAVI to vote "yes" on the commitment today in Geneva.

Lance Armstrong is a champion cyclist, cancer survivor and chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. John Seffrin is chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company