Now cervical cancer jabs for British girls

September 2nd, 2008 - 12:05 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Sep 2 (IANS) Amid a debate over its efficacy and longevity, a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer is to be given to all British girls in the 12-13 age group from Tuesday onwards.The biggest mass vaccination programme of Britain in over a decade involves each girl getting a set of three injections of the drug Cervarix, which will offer 70 percent protection against cervical cancer, said to be the most dreaded disease afflicting young women across the world.

By 2012, almost all girls in the said age group are expected to have received the jabs. Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmith-Kline, creates immunity against two strains of the human papillovirus (HPV), responsible for 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

The HPV, said to be carried by one in 10 girls under 16, is sexually transmitted and once it enters the cervix causes cell mutation which, if undetected, will lead to cancer.

Once the cells are past the pre-cancerous stage, treatment is notoriously drastic.

“Women who are caught early and end up having just a hysterectomy are the lucky ones,” says consultant gynaecologist Thomas Ind from the Royal Marsden and St George’s Hospital.

British experts are uneasy about the rush to vaccinate all young girls. Cervical cancer is still rare in Britain, thanks to a regular and free screening programme for women every three to five years. One of the main worries about the mass vaccination is that girls will then feel ’safe’ against cervical cancer and ignore the screening programme.

The second cause for worry is that Cervarix is also very new - large-scale trials go back only six years - and there is no way of knowing just how long protection will last.

Third, some people feel the programme is a case of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“Six million women carry the HPV virus at any one time,” says Chris Woollams, founder of the charity CancerActive and a former biochemist.

“In the majority of cases the immune system renders it harmless. Only 3,000 women get cervical cancer each year and less than 1,000 actually die. The best protection against contracting HPV and therefore cervical cancer is to use a condom. It gives you 100 percent protection,” Woollams adds.

Fourth, there is the fear of possible side-effects of Cervarix. In the US, 20 seemingly healthy girls died within a few days of being injected with a vaccine that has a similar generic make-up to Cervarix.

These deaths have been dismissed as coincidence by Merck who make the American jab, although Cervarix lists fainting, dizzying and sore arms as side-effects, according to Daily Mail.

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