I think we have reached a pivotal moment in the fight to prevent cervical cancer in Africa. This week I organised an international meeting in Oxford, bringing together representatives of the First Ladies of Nigeria and Uganda, African health ministers, pharmaceutical companies, and leading cervical cancer doctors, to map out a strategy for cervical cancer prevention in Africa. At the end of the meeting, the delegates signed the Oxford Declaration committing, for the first time, to global cooperation to eradicate cervical cancer in Africa.
Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in Africa. It is a disease which affects women in the prime of their lives, but most are unable to get any treatment and, far too often, they suffer a painful death as the only form of palliation available is paracetamol.
In the UK we are on the road to eradicating cervical cancer with the introduction of the HPV vaccine, but in Africa there is virtually no support to protect women from cervical cancer. There was great excitement from the delegates about the impact that the introduction of the HPV vaccine could have in Africa. Until now the costs of doing this have been prohibitive, as a course of vaccine jabs costs £300 per girl, and so it was way beyond the budget of all African governments.
The delegates agreed that efforts need to be made to lower the cost of the vaccine for developing countries and Joan Benson from Merck announced that Merck is committed to offering GARDASIL, their HPV vaccine, at a no-profit price. This is a fantastically generous offer which gives us a great opportunity to raise the necessary funds to get the vaccine onto the streets.
Early detection is also crucial in combating cervical cancer. In the last few years there have been some phenomenal improvements in screening technology, due to the development of low cost DNA tests aimed at detecting the HPV virus. And recent research suggests that even if women in developing countries had access to just one screening in their life-time, it could reduce their risk of cervical cancer by a third.
I remain an eternal optimist and committed to the battle against social inequality, and leave this meeting with a strong sense that we are entering a new phase in our drive to eradicate cervical cancer in Africa. E Tenebris lux and a chorus of Kumbaya all round!
Professor David Kerr is the founder of AFROX (the Africa-Oxford Cancer Consortium) and Professor of Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford.