Launched at Bloemfontein’s Gonyane Primary School, the national campaign aims to vaccinate all grade four girls older than nine years of age against the human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV is a common virus spread mostly by sexual contact. Almost all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point, but most infections will disappear however certain HPV strains can lead to cancers of the cervix, mouth, throat and – in men – the penis.
Delivered in two doses several months apart, the HPV vaccine aims to protect girls from the two strains responsible for about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Girls will receive an initial dose now and a follow-up dose in September and October, according to a statement issued by the Department of Health.
Cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer among South African women and is six times as likely to develop in HIV-positive women, according to international research. For the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), addressing cervical cancer is high on its agenda in the run-up to elections.
But TAC is concerned that some schools may be unprepared for the rollout after members found that some did not know about it and some not informed parents, according to TACs national women’s representative Portia Serote.
Serote also expressed concerns about the rollout being limited to younger, school-going girls and excluding boys.
“Pharmaceutical companies say that girls and boys from the age of nine up to 25 can be given the vaccine,” said Serote. “So what is happening to boys – who are carriers of HPV – and girls that don’t fall in that group (or) children living in undeveloped areas where there are no schools?”
The other 50 percent
International bodies like World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control recommend the HPV vaccine for girls and boys. The Cancer Association of South Africa has also recommended the HPV vaccine for men up to the age of 26 years old, particularly for those having sex with men and with compromised immune systems who may be at an increased risk of some cancers.
Johannesburg mother Kim Norton-Jurgens says she plans to talk to both her daughter and son about getting the HPV vaccine through the private sector when they are older.
“I don’t want my daughter – or my future daughter-in-law – to get cervical cancer,” she said. “I accept that my children aren’t going to be nuns and that they are going to have sex one day.”
Norton-Jurgens says she plans to go with her son in a few years to the family’s doctor where the doctor can explain the vaccine’s benefits. The decision to get her son vaccinated against HPV will ultimately be one that mother and son take together, she says
But unless vaccine prices drop, South Africa is unlikely to expand the public campaign to young men, according to Western Cape Department of Health spokesperson Jo-Anne Otto.
“For the moment we are offering the best protection with what we can afford,” said Otto, who added that the rollout continue to focus on girls until it is evaluated in three years.
With a greater burden of HPV-related cancers among women, limiting the vaccine roll out to women makes sense, adds Lynette Denny from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
“It should only be extended to boys once all eligible girls have been vaccinated as there is more HPV-related disease in women,” Denny said.
Figures on HPV-related cancers in men are difficult with an out-dated national cancer registry but in 2006 the country saw about 1200 such cases largely affecting the mouth, throat and tongue.
According to Otto, the HPV vaccine campaign will continue to focus on girls until it is evaluated in three years.
Additional reporting by Laura Lopez Gonzalez
An edited version of this article first appeared in the 12 March edition of The Star newspaper