By Niall Hunter-Editor
The first vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer and other diseases caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) was formally launched today.
However, at this stage, the vaccine, Gardasil, is not available free to medical card patients, and private patients will have to pay a total of €345 plus VAT for the three courses of vaccine necessary, in addition to normal GP consultation fees, if they want the vaccine.
The Department of Health has yet to decide whether the vaccine, which has been heralded as a major breakthrough for women's health and for cancer prevention, should be available free of charge as part of a national programme.
If it does, the cervical cancer jab, could, like the flu vaccine, be made available free to medical card patients, with private patients not being charged for the vaccine but just paying the normal GP consultation.
Until such a decision is made, a full course of Gardasil injections could cost in the region of €567, if a €50 fee for each GP visit is taken into account. It is recommended that Gardasil be given as three injections over a six month period.
The Department of Health has also yet to officially recommend at what age the vaccine should be administered.
A Department spokesperson told irishhealth.com that the potential role of HPV vaccination will be examined in advance of the planned roll-out of the cervical screening programme nationally in 2008.
"Issues to be examined include the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the vaccine, categories of women who should be vaccinated, immunity duration and booster requirements, and the implications for the national screening programme."
Gardasil is currently licensed in Ireland for children and adolescents aged 9 to 15 years and adult females aged 16 to 26 years. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the vaccine be given prior to women becoming sexually active, at age 11-12 years, and that a catch-up vaccination in girls/women of 13 to 26 years be administered in those who have not been vaccinated before.
A spokesman for the manufacturers in Ireland, Sanofi Pasteur MSD, said they would recommend that the vaccine be given to girls at around the age of 12 to 13.
According to the manufacturers, in clinical trials, it was shown that Gardasil demonstrated effective protection against four types of HPV which can cause cervical cancer and other related diseases.
Speaking at the launch of the vaccine, Prof Walter Prendiville, consultant gynaecologist at Dublin's Coombe Hospital, said the human papilloma virus was responsible for around 70% of cervical cancers.
He said that despite some media myths that had been perpetrated about cervical cancer, in the vast majority of cases it is not caused by promiscuity but by a reduced immune response to HPV.
He said most sexually active females and males have HPV but it clears from the system of the vast majority of people;only a small proportion of women will not clear the virus.
Prof Prendiville stressed that cervical cancer is almost completely preventable and its consequences can be disastrous, often hitting mothers in the prime of their lives.
He said the current cervical cancer screening programme in Limerick is called a national programme, but it is only confined to that region.
"We need a national screening programme to be provided."
He pointed out that the UK has had cervical screening since 1989 and Ireland now has a higher rate of cervical cancer than the UK, with over 70 women dying of this cancer in Ireland each year, and 180 women per annum diagnosed with the disease.
Pre-cervical cancer lesions detected with smear tests can be treated by removing the abnormal cells with a thin wire loop or with laser.
Cervical cancer is treated with surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Prof Prendiville said the new vaccine appears to him to be an ideal solution to prevent cervical cancer and to prevent the need for medical or surgical intervention after a cervical smear test.
He said that with screening and vaccines, the disease could be wiped out in a generation.
Another cervical cancer vaccine, Cerverix, from GlaxoSmithKline, is expected to be launched in the coming months.
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