Schoolgirls to get cervical cancer vaccines from 2014

Government will start administering cervical cancer vaccines in schools from February next year, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has announced. Speaking during the health budget vote debate in the National Assembly on Wednesday, Motsoaledi said government hoped to negotiate lower prices for the vaccine, which treats the human papilloma virus (HPV) the major cause of cervical cancer among women.

Quoting experts, he said cervical cancer affected 6 000 South African women a year, 80% of them black. More than half the women affected died of the disease. While the HPV vaccine presented an opportunity to prevent women from contracting cancer, there were still obstacles to overcome. "The very bad news is that the prices are prohibitive, at between R500 and R750 a dose, and you need three doses to be covered," he said. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation established the Gates Action for Vaccines and Immunisation to help make the drugs more affordable. South Africa did not qualify because it was "regarded to be too rich".

The fact that the Pan American Health Organisation negotiated lower prices for the vaccine for Latin American countries was a good indication South Africa could do the same. "I am extremely happy to announce that in consultation with the minister of finance and the minister of basic education, we have decided that we shall commence to administer the HPV vaccines as part of our school health programme as from February next year. "We will enter negotiations in our own right to also be given a fair deal in the interest of the lives of the women of this country," said Motsoaledi. Since the vaccine only worked fully before girls become sexually active, it would be administered to nine and 10-year-old girls. However, the roll-out would start only in quintile one, two, three and four schools, covering around 520 000 girls.

"We are not discriminating against quintile five schools ... We are just saying the parents there can afford [the vaccine], and please, they must try and buy it on their own until we are able to cover it." Motsoaledi appealed to medical aid schemes to cover the vaccines, to help the parents of pupils who would not qualify for the vaccine next year. The benefits of doing so far outweighed the costs of treating cervical cancer, he said.

"It costs up to R100 000 per patient in the public sector to treat each of the 6 000 cervical cancer patients. I am scared to quote you the figures for the private sector treatment," he said. Sapa