While the government has taken an in-principle call against the introduction of the cervical cancer vaccine in the public health programme, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director General (programmes) of the World Health Organisation, has said that India is a fit case for introduction of the HPV vaccine as cervical cancer now kills more women in the country than other maternal mortality causes.
Speaking to The Indian Express from Geneva, Dr Swaminathan said that with cervical cancer killing 70,000 women every year and the screening programme patchy, India should look at both the vaccine and indigenous screening technologies not in isolation but as interventions that can together eliminate at least this form of cancer. Results of a pilot on HPV vaccine conducted in two districts of Punjab by the state government have shown encouraging results, she said.
“India should introduce the HPV vaccine in its public health programme. It is a WHO recommendation that all countries should do so and awareness about the vaccine is actually low. People do not always relate to this concept of cancer that is vaccine preventable. Cervical cancer is now killing about 70,000 women every year, more than other causes of maternal mortality. India should look at indigenous screening technologies and the vaccine together if it wants to eliminate cervical cancer. The two will protect different generations of women. I can understand cost concerns about the vaccine because the results will take 20 years to show but it is important,” Dr Swaminathan said.
In her earlier capacity as the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, Dr Swaminathan was also a part of the sub-committee of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation — the highest technical body for evaluation of vaccines for the public health system — that made a favourable recommendation for the introduction of HPV in the universal immunisation programme (UIP). DG ICMR and secretary DBT are co-chairs of the standing technical sub-committee of NTAGI. That recommendation is still under NTAGI’s consideration but highly placed government sources say that HPV is off the plate for now.
It comes days after Swadeshi Jagran Manch, economic wing of the RSS, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi citing safety and cost concerns against the introduction of HPV in the UIP.
Making a powerful case for the introduction of HPV vaccine in the public health system, Dr Swaminathan cited a pilot of the Punjab government in Bhatinda and Mansa districts for administering HPV vaccine to young girls. “This was done in 2017 and it was very successful. They are now thinking of scaling up. Some states are introducing HPV on their own but for the government of India to do it would be a big step in fighting cervical cancer,” she added.