Urgent call to reduce the high cost of cervical cancer vaccinations in SA
Costly vaccinations hamper fight against cervical cancer, which affects more South African women than any other cancer

This weekend Mary-Anne* lost all her hair. Her brother, not knowing what to do, walked away from her, her aunt cried on the telephone when she heard. If only Mary-Anne had been vaccinated against cervical cancer and educated about it before reaching womanhood her cancer could have been prevented.

Statistically Mary-Anne represents one in every 35 women in this country who will develop cervical cancer in their lifetime. Cervical cancer affects more women in South Africa than any other cancer. Due to the advanced stage of her illness, a cancer from which 3 000 women will die from this year in South Africa, Mary-Anne is undergoing chemotherapy.  Despite it all, Mary Anne’s treatment is making a difference and she is remaining positive.

Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can largely be prevented with a vaccination. Widespread human papillomavirus (HPV) immunisation could reduce the impact of cervical cancer. Realising this, Dance for a Cure (DFAC) came into existence in 2007 to raise funds to fight cervical cancer, educate the public about the disease and save lives. According to its founder, Angela Ferguson its primary purpose is to create an awareness of the disease and to fund vaccination drives among under-privileged young girls.  

“All funds raised by DFAC go towards purchasing the vaccine against HPV that causes most HPV related diseases in males and females. Up to 80% of sexually active women will acquire a HPV infection in their lifetime, with the risk of recurring HPV infections increasing with age,” says Ferguson. According to Ferguson, DFAC could vaccinate many more young girls if the vaccine was more affordable, accessible and if a larger number of South Africans donated to this worthy cause. As it is the organisation has in recent years been forced to step up its fund raising efforts to fund the high cost of purchasing the vaccine.

“In 2007 when DFAC started we only had to host one fund-raising drive per year to reach our target - now we host three events every year. It is shocking but true that cervical cancer is one of the most low profile diseases and yet it is the biggest cancer killer of South African women. However, the introduction of a Nobel prize-winning vaccination that can prevent cervical cancer a few years ago has given girls and women all over the world the chance to keep this devastating disease at bay,” adds Ferguson. 

Research by the Health Economic Unit at the University of Cape Town to establish the cost-effectiveness of a national HPV vaccination programme found that it would cost the country R3 295 to vaccinate each girl. “This is prohibitively expensive,” says Ferguson “by manufacturers reducing the cost of the vaccination more women would have access to it. This in turn would lower the long-term costs associated with women contracting cervical cancer - not only for themselves but for the State and medical aids as well. The cost of diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer can range from R24 997 (stage one) to R55 997 (stage four) per woman.”

So real is the threat of this disease that as many as 50 countries including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have now incorporated vaccination against it as part of their national vaccination programmes.

In Uganda one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world is funding a pilot project to vaccinate girls against cervical cancer. There are currently two vaccinations on the market. The vaccinations are 100% effective against persistent infection but it is best to be vaccinated before reaching womanhood.

In order for the vaccine to be effective, three vaccines need to be administered, the second being one month after the first and the third being six months after the second. Due to this added complexity DFAC focuses on closed environments to ensure that it can monitor those who receive vaccinations and ensure that all three vaccines are administered, to this end it has chosen the Abraham Kriel Home, The Johannesburg Children’s Home, The Durban Children’s Home, St Philomena’s Children’s home and The Wylie Youth Centre for its drives. Its goal is to vaccinate all of the children at these homes.