When prevention truly becomes better than the cure!

The death of Indian actress/model Poonam Pandey at the tender age of 32 due to cervical cancer comes in as a reminder  that women health is quite fragile. Her role as the primary caregiver makes it imperative that she takes her health seriously.

That’s precisely why HPV vaccination for girls aged 9-14 years has been mentioned as a mandate in the interim budget 2024 by our Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. She mentions, “Our government will encourage vaccination for girls aged 9 to 14 years as a preventive measure against cervical cancer” during her budget speech.

According to reports, Cervical cancer ranks second among women’s cancers in India, with over 123,000 new cases and 77,000 deaths that were reported in 2020. This is also due to the fact that most women are either unaware of the disease and its precautions or they have limited access to the HPV vaccine which eventually leads to late diagnosis and undesirable outcomes.

In India cervical cancer is ranked as the second most common cancer amongst women resulting in a considerable extent to the global burden of cervical cancer across the world.

The main cause of this disease is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) the prevalence of which remains high due to the lack of awareness or access to the HPV vaccination in spite of the central government’s attempt to implement cancer screening awareness all across the country. This could be due to the stigma that most women face while visiting a gynecologist wherein at times they are snubbed or reprimanded for various reasons-be it their lack of knowledge/awareness, of healthcare, limited access to healthcare facilities or even lack of family support. Unfortunately even when women are educated, they lack the courage to visit a doctor. Regular screening with Pap smears or other HPV tests can diagnose early stages of the disease however most of the rural areas of India lack facilities for screening thus leading to a late diagnosis, loss of life and the eventual case of a lost and unfulfilled potential.

As per GLOBACAN 2020, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) there were 123,907 new cervical cancer cases while deaths were reported to be around 77,348.

Dr Krithiga Shridhar, an Epidemiologist at the Centre for Chronic Disease Control (CCDC), points out the importance of a global commitment towards eradicating cervical cancer completely through vaccination drives, screening, early diagnosis and treatment. Cervical cancer is one of the most life threatening cancers across the world, especially in the rural areas of India.  Dr. Shridhar emphasizes the importance of population level screening and implementing HPV vaccination drives across the country. She suggests the need to identify and understand the implementation gaps so that there’s an immediate arrest in the number of cases in cervical cancer that’s increasing in leaps and bounds.

Late diagnosis is the most important cause of deaths amongst women due to cervical cancer, even in case of actress/model Poonam Pandey it was confirmed by her manager Parul Chawla who said, “She got detected with cancer sometime back, and it was in the latter stages. She was in her hometown in Uttar Pradesh, and the funeral will mostly happen there.”

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This news must make us much more cautious as rightly pointed out by Dr CS Ramesh, Director, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, and board member of the Union International for Cancer Control who says, “The most effective prevention is a healthier lifestyle. Avoiding tobacco (in any form) and alcohol, more physical activity, losing weight and preventing infections are the important strategies we need to adopt. A physically fit and active person has a much lower chance of developing cancer than others.”

The finance minister’s statement encouraging young girls and women to get vaccinated against this deadly disease comes sadly after a day of Poonam Pandey’s early demise. As per her claims, the government plans to cap prices of the HPV vaccine so that they become more affordable. They also promise to explore options of maximizing and spreading awareness about cervical cancer through Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities.

According to reports, Indian scientists have developed the first indigenous Human Papilloma Virus vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer and other HPV-associated cancers, “Cervavac”; the vaccine that was manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), would soon become part of India’s National Immunization Program 2024.

Every year the approximately 1.25 lakh women get affected with cervical cancer with almost 75% deaths that are reported. Besides, 83% of invasive cervical cancer in India is linked to HPV 16 or 18 as compared to 70% worldwide.

Thus echoing the words of Union science & technology minister Jitendra Singh the best way to prevent cervical cancer is by getting vaccinated against human papillomavirus.


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