A global vaccines group said Thursday it was working to buy shots to protect up to 2 million women and girls in poor countries from cervical cancer.
After a meeting in Bangladesh this week, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation said women and girls in nine developing countries might be immunized against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer, by 2015.
The group, also known as the GAVI Alliance, could not immediately name the countries likely to get the vaccines. It said buying the injections depends on whether it can negotiate a reasonable price from manufacturers and whether countries can prove they can actually deliver the shots.
At the meeting, GAVI also said it would consider investing in hundreds of millions of shots against the rubella virus, or German measles, which can be dangerous for pregnant women and children.
The GAVI Alliance includes the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the vaccine industry and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.
Nina Schwalbe, the alliance's managing director of policy and performance, said the HPV vaccine is critical to women and girls in developing countries because they often don't get cervical cancer screening or treatment.
"The vaccine is their only hope," she said.
The HPV vaccine normally sells for more than $300 in rich countries and includes three shots given over six months. Schwalbe said Merck, which makes an HPV vaccine, had offered to sell it to GAVI for $15 for the entire treatment. GAVI is also in talks with GlaxoSmithKline, which makes another licensed HPV vaccine.
Daniel Berman, a vaccines expert at Doctors Without Borders, said GAVI's planned investment in the HPV vaccine was good news. But he worried GAVI might not do enough to ensure young women actually get immunized.
"In the past, there's been this imbalance at GAVI where they put too much (money) into vaccines and not enough into getting vaccines to kids," he said. "They're falling down on the delivery side."
A study published several years ago found dozens of poor countries inflated the figures for how many children got vaccinated against deadly diseases, allowing them to claim more money from international groups, including GAVI.
Dagfinn Hoybraten, chair of GAVI's board, said they would invest more into health systems if countries requested it. He said administering the HPV vaccine demanded special programs and that trials in Rwanda and Vietnam demonstrated it could work in poor countries. In the Rwanda trial, where the shots were given to girls aged 10-12 in schools, the compliance rate was more than 90 percent.
In comparison, the HPV vaccine has been a hard sell in the U.S., with only a third of adolescent girls getting all three doses of the shot by last year.
Hoybraten said the HPV vaccine would only be provided when countries ask for it. HPV causes about 275,000 cervical cancer deaths every year, of which 88 percent occur in poor countries.