Actor and model Poonam Pandey, who rose to fame with her bold photoshoots and films, passed away on Friday at the age of 32 due to cervical cancer, her media manager confirmed. Her death has brought the spotlight on the deadly disease that kills over 70,000 women in India every year, and the government’s efforts to prevent it through vaccination.
What is cervical cancer and how is it caused?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It is mostly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection that can infect the genital area of both men and women. There are more than 100 types of HPV, but only some of them can cause cervical cancer. Types 16 and 18 of HPV together cause about 70 per cent of all invasive cervical cancer cases worldwide.
Cervical cancer can be detected early through regular screening tests such as the Pap smear and the HPV test, which can identify abnormal cells or the presence of the virus in the cervix. If left untreated, these cells can become cancerous and spread to other parts of the body. The symptoms of cervical cancer may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain during sex, pelvic pain, or unusual discharge.
How prevalent is cervical cancer in India?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in India, after breast cancer. It accounts for one in every five or 21 per cent of cervical cancer cases globally. Every year, around 1.25 lakh women in India are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and over 75 thousand die from it. In India, 83 per cent of invasive cervical cancers are linked to HPVs 16 or 18, compared to 70 per cent worldwide.
The main risk factors for cervical cancer in India include early marriage, multiple sexual partners, multiple pregnancies, poor hygiene, tobacco use, and low awareness. The lack of access to affordable and quality health care, especially in rural areas, also contributes to the high mortality rate of the disease.
How can cervical cancer be prevented and treated?
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is by getting vaccinated against HPV, preferably before the onset of sexual activity. The HPV vaccine can protect against the most common and high-risk types of the virus that cause cervical cancer and other HPV-associated cancers, such as anal, penile, and throat cancer. The vaccine is given in two or three doses, depending on the age of the recipient, and is recommended for both girls and boys in the age group of 9-14 years.
Apart from vaccination, regular screening and early treatment of precancerous lesions can also reduce the incidence and mortality of cervical cancer. The treatment options for cervical cancer depend on the stage and extent of the disease, and may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.
What is the government’s plan to encourage HPV vaccination?
In the Interim Budget for 2024-25, presented by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday, the government proposed a plan to encourage vaccination against HPV among girls in the age group of 9-14 years for the prevention of cervical cancer. However, the details about the programme, such as the budget allocation, the implementation strategy, and the target population, were not revealed.
According to an ANI report, the government is exploring options to cap prices so that the vaccines to treat cervical cancer become more affordable. The report suggests that, apart from slashing prices, the government will also promote HPV vaccination for cervical cancer through Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities.
How has India developed its own vaccine for cervical cancer?
Notably, Indian scientists have recently developed ‘Cervavac’, the first indigenous HPV vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer and other HPV-associated cancers. Developed and manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), this vaccine is soon to be included in India’s national immunisation programme in 2024.
‘Cervavac’ is a bivalent vaccine that targets HPVs 16 and 18, the most common and high-risk types of the virus. It is expected to be cheaper and more accessible than the existing HPV vaccines in the market, such as Gardasil and Cervarix, which are imported and cost around ₹2,000-3,000 per dose. ‘Cervavac’ has been tested in over 16,000 women across India and has shown 98 per cent efficacy and safety.
Poonam Pandey’s death has highlighted the need for more awareness and action to combat cervical cancer, a preventable and treatable disease that affects millions of women in India. The government’s plan to encourage HPV vaccination, along with the launch of India’s own vaccine, is a welcome step in this direction.