A decade ago, China had one of the world’s highest incidences of hepatitis B, a viral infection that is the primary cause of liver cancer.
Today, less than 1 percent of China’s children are carriers of hepatitis B – and as they age, the deadly liver cancer, once a leading killer in China, is becoming increasingly rare.
How was this achieved? From 2002-2010, my organization, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, or GAVI, worked with the Chinese Ministry of Health to immunize 25 million newborns against hepatitis B in some of the poorest and most remote provinces in the country. The campaign helped avert hundreds of thousands of cancer-related deaths, and its success led the Chinese Government to add the hepatitis B vaccine — the first immunization known to prevent any form of cancer — into its national immunization programme.
Though their causes are viral, cancers such as liver and cervical cancer, are often described as part of the group of “non-communicable diseases” (NCDs) that also include diabetes and heart disease. The viral origins of these two cancers raise the question of whether “non-communicable” properly defines this group of diseases. We know that almost a fifth of cancer cases worldwide are caused by infections, and there are indications that a number of other chronic diseases are caused by infections, which might one day also be prevented by vaccines.
Vaccines are critical preventative tools to curb liver and cervical cancer, particularly in poorer countries where the burden is highest and health services are often limited. And they’re a good investment – the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks vaccines such as hepatitis B a “best buy” in preventing NCDs.
Considering the important role that these existing vaccines have and the potential for new vaccines, any global strategy that aims to tackle non-communicable diseases should include the power and potential of vaccination.
And so much more can be done. China is just one success. GAVI plans to reach 230 million more children with hepatitis B vaccination. And we’ve set our sights on cervical cancer too, the second most common cancer in women. While it is a global public health threat, nearly 90 percent of cervical cancer deaths are found in developing countries. GAVI’s aim is to replicate the important progress achieved in the fight against liver cancer by supporting the introduction of vaccines preventing human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes virtually all cervical cancer cases. Some, for political purposes, have questioned the value and importance of HPV vaccines. Let’s be absolutely clear – the science supports the use of this life-saving vaccine.
If the GAVI Board approves HPV vaccine funding at its November meeting, countries will be invited to apply for support. Ensuring a sufficient supply of affordable HPV vaccines will be key to our efforts and GAVI is already working with manufacturers to lower vaccine prices for developing countries.
On September 19 and 20, the global community will come together at the UN General Assembly for the first-ever high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described the meeting as “our chance to broker an international commitment that puts NCDs high on the development agenda where they belong.” Effectively knocking out non-communicable diseases and the chronic infections that cause many of them will require a comprehensive effort, and immunization belongs at the very heart of such an approach.