Tag Archives: cervical cancer

In the Developing World, Diseases Defy Definition

Before last week, I thought I knew the definition of “noncommunicable disease.” Then I attended “The Long Tail of Global Health Equity: Tackling the Endemic Non-Communicable Diseases of the Bottom Billion.”

 Held on the campus of Harvard Medical School in Boston March 2nd and 3rd, the 2-day conference was sponsored by Partners In Health, an international nonprofit organization that conducts research, does advocacy, and provides direct health care services for people living in poverty around the world. The “Bottom Billion” of the meeting’s title refers to the world’s poorest people living on less than $1 per day.

 In a 2008-2013 action plan, the World Health Organization refers to “the four noncommunicable diseases – cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases and the four shared risk factors – tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and the harmful use of alcohol.” Together, these conditions account for approximately 60% of all global deaths, of which 80% occur in low- and middle-income countries. 

A cancer patient in Rwanda receives chemotherapy as her husband and physician discuss her treatment / Photo courtesy of Partners In Health

But as I learned at the conference, among the Bottom Billion, rheumatic heart disease is often the result of an untreated streptococcal infection early in life, diabetes is frequently associated with malnutrition rather than over-nourishment, and cervical cancer due to human papillomavirus is far more common than in the developed world, where women routinely receive PAP screenings and a vaccine can now also prevent the infection.   

And most startling to me: Among the world’s poorest, smoking is not the most common cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cooking with biomass fuels is.   

Individually, these and other so-called “endemic NCDs” including Burkitt’s lymphoma, sickle cell disease, and tropical diseases are far less common than those within the WHO’s “four-by-four” definition. But together, that “long tail” of chronic conditions contributes to a great deal of suffering. 

In May 2010, the United Nations announced that it would hold a high-level meeting on NCDs in 2011, now set for September 19-20. It will be only the 29th such meeting that the UN has ever held (formerly called “special sessions“), and just the second pertaining specifically to a health issue. The first one, the 2001 Summit on HIV/AIDS, is credited with focusing global attention and obtaining public and private funding for that cause. 

Speakers at the Partners In Health meeting stressed that the NCD movement should not be undertaken as an “us against them” competition with infectious disease for scarce resources. In a statement that will be presented to the heads of government at the UN summit, the group called instead for “strengthening and adjusting health systems to address the prevention, treatment, and care of NCDs, particularly at the primary health care level.”

—Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Oh Boy, Another Vaccine Conundrum

Should the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil be recommended for routine use in boys aged 11-12 years, as it is now for girls? Or should the vaccine’s use in boys remain an option but not a routine recommendation? Alternatively, should it be routinely recommended for males who have sex with other males, a group that is at increased risk for anal infection and cancer due to HPV?

Policy decisions regarding vaccine use are often complex and nuanced, even for vaccines that aren’t already as controversial as Gardasil. The issue of vaccinating males is causing headaches for the panel tasked with making the decision, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pat Ramsey photo via Flickr Creative Commons

Of the two HPV vaccines on the U.S. market, only Gardasil is licensed for use in males. It contains four strains of HPV, two (16 and 18) that are associated with cervical and other types of anogenital and oral cancers, and two (6 and 11) that are associated with genital warts. In December 2010, the Food and Drug Administration added the indication of prevention of anal cancer due to HPV vaccine strains in both males and females.

In 2009, ACIP said that Gardasil could be given to males aged 9 through 26 years, but didn’t make a routine recommendation. Some are now in favor of doing so, arguing that the vaccine protects males against both genital warts and anal cancer, it reduces HPV transmission to females by preventing infection in their male sex partners, and it’s simply more equitable and convenient for physicians to offer the vaccine to both male and female patients.

The main argument against the move is the vaccine’s cost, approximately $360 for the full three-dose series. A CDC-commissioned cost-effectiveness analysis posed a conundrum: Use of Gardasil in males is more cost-effective the less it is used in females, and vice versa. At current female coverage levels – just 27% for all three doses among 13- to 17-year-olds in 2009 ¬ use of the vaccine in males makes the cost-effectiveness cut-off in some models, depending on assumptions. But of course, public health officials are hoping that coverage among females will increase.

Restricting Gardasil’s use to males who have sex with males would dramatically increase the vaccine’s cost-effectiveness, as anal cancer in that group is actually more common than is cervical cancer among all women. While the vaccine’s use could certainly be promoted among older male teens and young adults who are already “out,” screening for sexual orientation among 11- to 12-year-old boys is unlikely to be a viable option.

A vote on this is likely to come later this year, but it won’t be an easy one, ACIP working group chair Dr. Janet A. Englund told me at the panel’s meeting last week in Atlanta. “The concern about cost and cost-effectiveness is a very important consideration for the committee.”

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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