A vaccine that provides near-total protection against cancer of the cervix - a disease that kills thousands of women each year - was approved by the Medicines Control Council (MCC), pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced.
Cervical cancer is the main cancer affecting South African women. "One in every 31 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in her lifetime and it kills over 3 400 women in South Africa each year," says Martha Molete from the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).
With the MCC's approval of the vaccine, GSK is launching a product called Cervarix in South Africa. It will be immediately available in the private and public sectors.
'Great step forward'
"The decision to approve GSK's cervical cancer vaccine represents a great step forward for all South African women. Physicians will now have access to this important vaccine to help protect women against this disease," Dr Navin Singh, Medical Director of GSK, said.
According to Molete, the vaccine could save hundreds of thousands of lives and could eradicate cervical cancer in time.
In over 80 percent of cases, cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a very common sexually transmitted infection. It is estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of all sexually active individuals may be infected.
Although the strains of HPV that causes cervical cancer (HPV 16 and 18) don't affect men, they are carriers of the disease and can infect their female sexual partners. The new vaccine specifically works against the cancer-causing strains of HPV.
The vaccine is already in use in the UK and the US, and is recommended for use in girls and women from the age of 10 upwards.
Compulsory for all girls and boys
CANSA believes that the cervical cancer vaccine should should be made compulsory for all girls and boys in South Africa.
"The current price of the vaccine is around R700 and three shots are required, therefore it would cost R2100 to have one person vaccinated," CANSA said in a prepared statement. "It is estimated that about 300 000 South Africans should be vaccinated every year, adding up to a cost of R630 million per annum."
CANSA prepared a document for Finance Minister Trevor Manual suggesting that an increased tax on tobacco could cover these costs.
Cervical cancer - a background
Cervical cancer is a common disease in the developing world. Pap smears are currently the recommended method of screening, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Although it is a preventable disease that is curable if detected and treated in its early stages, it remains the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in South African women, according to the Medical Research Council.
Factors that increase a woman's risk for developing cervical cancer include early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners and smoking.
(Wilma Stassen, Health24, February 2008)