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“The single most effective public health measure for countries after clean water is vaccination.”

 

By PROFESSOR IAN FRAZER

This week a small organisation in Geneva known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), an organisation that funds vaccines in the world’s poorest countries, announced news that will have a massive impact on the health of women.

They have secured contracts with vaccine manufacturers to supply the HPV vaccine to millions of girls in Africa and the Asia Pacific region.

This is the start of a transformation in the health of women in the world’s poorest countries where the scourge of cervical cancer bites hardest. And it is the start of the realisation of my dream that girls in the developing world will have the same access to HPV vaccine as Australian girls.

When I first set out to create a HPV vaccine back in 1980, it was nothing more than an idea. Today, millions of girls, boys and young women have been vaccinated, mainly in rich countries.

The high cost of the vaccine has been a barrier to routine use in poorer countries. Thanks to GAVI and its partners, a record low price for HPV vaccine has been achieved, helping to break through the price barrier. GAVI says that by 2020 they expect to have helped vaccinate over 30 million girls in more than 40 developing countries. This month, the GAVI Alliance will celebrate as the first girl is immunised against HPV in Kenya with its support – one of the many developing countries where cervical cancer is a silent but deadly killer of women.

The journey started with an idea of developing a vaccine to treat papillomavirus, an infection that can cause various cancers. While I was in Cambridge on a sabbatical I worked with the late Dr Jian Zhou, a Chinese virologist. Our biggest challenge was that we couldn’t grow the virus in the lab, so we couldn’t understand the body’s immune response to HPV infection.

So, we decided to build a virus-like particle ourselves.

This was a bit like throwing a pile of building bricks into the corner and expecting them to build themselves into the Eiffel Tower. In 1991, the ‘eureka moment’ happened when we got the technology right and we built the shell of the virus. We felt great satisfaction at finally cracking the technical problem that had annoyed and challenged us for a year! And by doing that, we had found the basis of the vaccine. Years of painstaking research and development by many researchers worldwide followed, and in 2006, I was proud to be able to administer the first official HPV vaccination in Australia.

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I knew when we were developing the vaccine that it would be primarily be used for women living in the developing world.

Cervical cancer is a preventable disease in richer countries. Women have pap smears to alert them to cancer risk before they actually develop cancer, and if they get cancer they have access to treatment.

But, there are few programmes to screen and treat cervical cancer in poorer countries and getting those services going will take a lot of time and money. This brings home more clearly than ever the maxim of prevention being better than cure.

And we don’t have time to wait. We’ve been working on programmes to help prevent cervical cancer in Vanuatu for about five years, and we’ve been seeing a huge burden of diseases among younger women – often as young as 20.

One in a hundred healthy women walking around in cities like Port Vila has cervical cancer but because treatment is not available, the cancer will eventually kill them. Universal vaccination, especially in countries like Vanuatu, is our only hope in preventing cervical cancer.

The single most effective public health measure for countries after clean water is vaccination. Vaccines prevent countless deaths every year, yet many countries can scarcely afford to deliver the more modern vaccines.

That’s why we need GAVI and its partners. Australia has recently stepped up its support for GAVI through the aid programme. This week’s news on HPV vaccine is further proof of the value of investing in vaccines and immunisation through the GAVI Alliance. It is my hope that the aid programme will continue and grow its commitments to GAVI.

I have had to come to grips with turning from being an essentially private person into a public figure. But as someone who cares about the health of women across the world I know how privileged I am to have been involved in developing a vaccine that will save the lives of millions of the world’s poorest women.

As a scientist and an inventor it is a fantastic feeling to see a vaccine I helped create from scratch take shape, be developed and reach the girls who need them the most.

Professor Ian Frazer is the creator of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine against cervical cancer. He was Australian of the Year in 2006.

On Thursday, May 9 the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation announced a new deal to deliver the HPV vaccine to the world’s poorest countries at $US4.50 – a fraction of the price paid in the developed world (around $US100).

Australian aid money and science will be pivotal in GAVI’s quest to vaccinate 30 million girls in 40 countries by 2020.

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