Days after the economic wing of the RSS wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against introducing a cervical cancer vaccine in the universal immunisation programme (UIP), the Ministry of Health has taken a decision in principle not to do so. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in India.
The matter is still under consideration of the technical advisory body on immunisation but highly placed sources in the ministry say that regardless of what the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) decides, a vaccine against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) will not become a part of UIP anytime soon. An NTAGI subcommittee had recommended that India should introduce HPV. “We are not going ahead with it now,” said a top health ministry functionary in reply to a question on HPV introduction.
After the subcommittee constituted to look into HPV introduction recommended that it be introduced, the NTAGI discussed the matter in a meeting on December 19 but did not reach a decision. During the run-up to that meeting, though, as news emerged about the subcommittee’s recommendation, the RSS wing Swadeshi Jagran Manch wrote to the PM citing safety and cost concerns.
In the letter, SJM national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan wrote: “It is our concern that this programme will divert scarce resources from more worthwhile health initiatives diverting it to this vaccine of doubtful utility and that its adverse effects will erode confidence in the national immunisation programme and thereby expose children unnecessarily to the risk of more serious vaccine-preventable disease.”
In India, currently the vaccine is marketed by two companies, Gardasil and Glaxosmithkline, and is administered largely in the private sector, if the doctor feels the need or if the patient demands it. The vaccine currently costs less than $5 a dose.
“Swadeshi Jagran Manch requests you to stop this move to introduce Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine in India and we recommend the strongest action against groups that pervert science, which brings ignominy to the scientific community in the country and sells the country to vested interests,” the letter added.
HPV comprises a group of more than 150 viruses that cause papilloma or warts in parts of the body, including genital areas. They spread by skin-to-skin contact and are responsible for a number of diseases, including cancers, though they are most commonly associated with cancer of the cervix (neck of the uterus). HPV is a necessary cause for cervical cancer but not sufficient cause. WHO recommends HPV vaccination for the prevention of cervical cancer. Its 2017 position paper on HPV identifies the primary target population as girls aged aged 9-14, prior to becoming sexually active.
According to a 2015 article in the International Journal of Women’s Health, “Every year in India, 122,844 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 67,477 die from the disease. India has a population of 432.2 million women aged 15 years and older who are at risk of developing cancer. It is the second most common cancer in women aged 15-44 years. India also has the highest age standardised incidence of cervical cancer in South Asia at 22, compared to 19.2 in Bangladesh, 13 in Sri Lanka, and 2.8 in Iran.”