Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Stella Says…If only they had a shot to prevent cancer

by Stella Ramsaroop

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 13 June 2006)

Oh, but they do have a shot to prevent cancer, my friend. This past week, the FDA approved a new drug that offers an outstanding rate of protection against certain types of cervical cancer if given to a young woman before she becomes sexually active.

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death for women in the United States until the introduction of the PAP test, which helps to detect early signs of cervical abnormalities. The American Cancer Society reported only 10,520 new cases for cervix cancer in the US in 2004, down from 13,000 cases in 2002.

For developing countries, the incident rate for cervical cancer is significantly higher because far fewer women are able to get the PAP test. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) said this type of cancer is still the leading cause of death from cancer among women in developing countries.

The NCCC Website said, "At least 370,000 new cases are identified each year; 80 percent are in developing countries. Rates are highest in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. An important reason for the sharply higher cervical cancer incidence in developing countries is the lack of effective screening programs aimed at detecting pre-cancerous conditions (dysplasia) and treating them before they progress to invasive cancer."

A 2003 Pan American Health Organisation report cited 51.1 new cases per 100,000 population for cervical cancer in Guyana in 2000. This rate is significantly higher than many of Guyana's neighbouring countries during the same time period. Trinidad and Tobago's incident rate was 33.3, Barbados' rate was 30.4, Suriname's rate was 43.8 and Venezuela's rate was 38.3. These are the most current figures I could locate.

It seems almost all cervical cancers are caused by a sexually transmitted microbe called human papillomavirus (HPV). In a June 11 article, Time explained it like this, "Most of the time, a woman's body can deal with an HPV infection without any trouble--which is a good thing since a majority of sexually active women are believed to develop one at some point in their lives. In a small percentage of cases, the virus persists in the body, and in an even smaller percentage of those cases, the infection triggers a complex process that leads to cervical cancer."

The new vaccine, being manufactured by Merck, is said to have an astounding rate of protection nearing 100 percent for the two most common cancer causing HPV strains. When given to a young woman before she becomes sexually active, this vaccine could prevent her from ever getting cervical cancer that is caused by this HPV virus. Women can still get the vaccine after being sexually active, but the rate of protection decreases.

Imagine that there is a shot that can prevent a form of cancer! This is some of the most heartening news in recent medical history. My mother died at the young age of 48 from another vicious form of cancer, which makes me all the more cautious of this deadly disease. Now it seems as if I can protect my daughters from at least one type of cancer.

However, there is a downside to this monumental medical achievement – the cost. The vaccine, which is given in a series of three shots over a six-month period, costs about US$360. For the just women of my immediate family to get this vaccine, it would cost us well over US$1,000. That is not to say our lives are not worth the money, but that the price tag is far out of reach for many around the world and even here in the US.

In developing countries, this price tag is outrageous. Although I understand these drug companies exist solely to make money, I simply cannot help but consider the fact that they could save so many lives with this drug. Yet the very ones who need this vaccine the most are the ones who stand little chance of getting it.

A discovery such as this should not be withheld from developing countries or the poor in developed countries because of something so trivial as money. It should be manufactured in mass quantities for the lowest price possible and generously distributed around the world.

If I were an executive at Merck, I would not be able to live with myself if I knew at any given minute there were thousands of women worldwide dying a slow and tortuous death simply because I cared more about the bottom line than the lives of those precious women.

Since this vaccine is newly approved by the FDA and doctors have not even started to stock up on it yet, I suppose we have no other choice but to sit back and wait to see what Merck will do. In the meantime, I am hoping the next medical breakthrough will be yet another way to make the threat of cancer a thing of the past.

Email: stellasays[at]gmail.com

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