#CervicalCancer: Include HPV Vaccine in Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) of India

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Cervical cancer or cancer cervix is the second most common cancer among women in India. Cervical cancer kills approximately 70,000 women every year in the country, more than other causes of maternal mortality (Source: WHO Reports). Yet, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare - Government of India, has taken an in-principle call against the introduction of the cervical cancer vaccine in the public health programme - Universal Immunization Programme. This decision was taken adhering to recommendations from an organization affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) called Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM). SJM seems to be of the opinion that cervical cancer is not a serious issue and "scarce resources" should be used for "more worthwhile" health initiatives.

It is imperative for India to introduce the cervical cancer vaccine. In nearly all cases, the cervical cancer can be attributable to Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is preventable by HPV vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the inclusion of the HPV vaccine among routine mandatory vaccinations. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, World Health Organization's Deputy Director-General for Programmes has said that India is a fit case for introduction of the HPV vaccine.

Further, there is enough support regarding the safety of the vaccine. The National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI) had earlier recommended HPV vaccination in India to prevent cervical cancer. A paper published by National Health Portal of India also stated, "cervical cancer can be prevented by vaccinating all young females against the HPVs". Furthermore, a pilot of the Punjab government in Bhatinda and Mansa districts for administering HPV vaccine to young girls have shown encouraging results. This was done last year and was very successful. The Punjab Government is now thinking of scaling up. Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Punjab, which has been commissioned to do a cost effectiveness study of the vaccine for Punjab, points out the cost of the vaccination will be roughly INR 900 per girl, if the government rolls it out through a mass programme.

On the other hand, it is surprising that the Union Health Ministry has decided to exclude the HPV vaccine from Universal Immunization Programme (UIP).

Cervical cancer can be prevented by vaccinating all young females against the HPVs and by screening and treating pre-cancerous lesions in women. In addition, if cervical cancer is detected early and treated in earlier stages it can be cured.

Only two doses of the vaccine administered at a 6 to 12 month interval are enough to protect girls under the age of 15 years.

To conclude, the government should check the 'disease burden' which is very high for cervical cancer in India. Evidently, the alternate to HPV vaccine is not effective (both in terms of cost and benefit) and the vaccination seems to be the way forward. It is critical that we take this issue on a priority basis and not get swayed by misogynist, orthodox, hyper-masculine patriarchal mindsets and organizations, which attempt to put women’s health on last priority.

As a public health professional and an advocate for women's health, I have started this petition requesting the Prime Minister, Union Health Minister, Women & Child Development Minister, among others, to include HPV vaccine in the Universal Immunization Programme of India on an urgent basis and help save India’s women from this vaccine preventable cancer. 

Please Sign my petition!