World Immunization Week 2021: Vaccines Bring Us Closer. . . To Ending Cervical Cancer Forever

-Heather White, Executive Director

This year’s World Immunization Week theme of “Vaccines bring us closer” speaks to the desire of billions of people to re-establish the normal patterns of our pre-COVID-19 lives as soon as possible. Now more than ever, the power of vaccines to safeguard health is being celebrated. At the same time, as the world grapples with the challenge of ensuring global access to new vaccines against COVID-19, the human cost of insufficient investment in immunization programs has never been more apparent.

I see a return to those “normal” pre-COVID conditions as a critical stepping-off point to a revolutionary change in global health: the global elimination of cervical cancer. We need vaccines against COVID-19 to play their role in driving back the pandemic, so that we can get back on track to permanently ending a cancer that ended the lives of 342,000 women in 2020. Vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) – which causes the vast majority of cervical cancer – will play a critical role in that endeavor as well.

Last November, the World Health Organization launched its Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer, built on three complementary targets:

  • Vaccinating 90% of girls against HPV by age 15;
  • Screening 70% of women at ages 35 and 45 for precancerous cervical lesions; and
  • Ensuring that 90% of women in need receive treatment for cervical disease.

TogetHER has joined its voice to global calls for universal, equitable vaccination against COVID-19 necessary to save hundreds of thousands of lives from this still-evolving global health threat. Such access is also critical to reversing the disruption COVID-19 has wrought on essential health services in low-resource settings, including cervical screening and treatment and the scale-up of HPV vaccines.

The tenacity and creativity of practitioners and advocates have sustained cervical cancer prevention services in low-resource settings under these unbearably challenging circumstances, and even inspired solutions that will enhance the field even as COVID-19’s specter hopefully wanes. Getting health services fully back on track is a life-and-death matter for millions of women. For each year of delay in scaling up the three elimination intervention targets, up to 326,000 additional women in low- and middle-income countries may lose their lives to cervical cancer.

There’s some exciting research happening on how just a single dose of HPV vaccine – versus the current two- or three-dose regiments – can provide sufficient protection. We’ve organized an upcoming webinar with PATH to provide global experts an opportunity to discuss how this can greatly increase the number of young women who can access HPV vaccines.

Safe and effective vaccines can help free our global community from COVID-19’s grip over the coming months and consign a major pandemic to the history books, but only if they get to the people that need them. The impact of vaccines will only materialize with the necessary political and financial support.

We don’t have to let one health crisis prevent the end of another. We must accelerate COVID-19 vaccine deployment and access to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic – and also position scale-up of HPV vaccines, to ultimately bring us closer to ending cervical cancer forever.