Applying Lessons I Learned from Polio Eradication to HPV

I learned a lot when I headed the polio eradication program in India. Most of all, I learned there was much to unlearn. Our success in finishing polio taught me several important lessons in humility. Now many are aware that what works in one setting does not necessarily work in even the neighboring community, let alone in that town, that state, or that country. Within a community, households show different behaviors and preferences. But we still fail to address heterogeneity systemically.

And this is the case with HPV. What we know about the vaccine seems to check off all the boxes:

  • Unparalleled effectiveness of 90 percent when given at the right age
  • Demonstrated safety with more than 500 million doses given worldwide
  • Integrated into the national immunization schedule of 125 countries

And yet….. the global HPV vaccine uptake continues to be very low. The pandemic played a part but even before COVID-19, HPV vaccine coverage was feeble.

HPV vaccination is as close to a cancer moonshot as we have. How many vaccines can almost completely prevent the risk of a certain type of cancer? However, we need to see these vaccines as just one pivotal part of a holistic approach to eliminate cervical cancer. Just as pneumonia, cholera and typhoid vaccines are most effective with corresponding investments in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) interventions, the HPV vaccine needs the support of cervical cancer screening and treatment. That’s why at Sabin Vaccine Institute, we are leading a Global HPV Consortium that is uniting these three pillars in a concerted push to end cervical cancer – this approach is in lockstep with the World Health Organization’s framework targeting cervical cancer elimination by 2030.

Given the fast-approaching timeline, we must act quickly, hearing all those who are at the front-end of implementing vaccination programs. Recently, 2023 Sabin Rising Star Sangwe Clovis Nchinjoh, MD spoke to me in a Getting to Zero video conversation (stay tuned for premiere date and time) about the challenges of expanding coverage for HPV and other routine vaccinations in Cameroon. He raises many good points – watch a sneak preview below.

For instance, his idea to package up screening of women along with kids’ vaccinations can help catch and slay HPV-induced cancers early, assuming treatment options are available. We lose a woman every 90 seconds to cervical cancer. We can stop that with effective, simple measures tailored for communities they are intended to reach.

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