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.