Donations Kickstart Cervical Cancer Program in Rwanda

The Rwandan government, in collaboration with two companies, today announced the start of a national cervical cancer prevention program—the first African country to do so. The companies, Merck and Qiagen, will make substantial donations to help vaccinate girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, and screen adult women for infection with the virus.

Many countries in the western world have implemented HPV vaccination programs that use either Merck's vaccine Gardasil, or another from GlaxoSmithKline. On paper, the vaccines could save far more lives in developing countries, where Pap smears that help detect early stages of cancer are not commonly used. But the vaccines' cost—more than $300 for three doses—has been a major obstacle.

Under the deal, Merck will donate more than 2 million doses of Gardasil for the first 3 years of a nationwide program targeting girls 12 to 15 years old. Qiagen will contribute 250,000 of its DNA-based HPV screening tests for women ages 35 to 45. Qiagen says the tests are so simple that they can be conducted by people with minimal training even in remote settings.

After 3 years, Rwanda will start paying for the products at discounted prices that have yet to be revealed. Donors are expected to help foot that bill. The companies say they are talking to other poor countries about similar programs.

Rwanda will employ its network of community health workers to distribute the vaccine, the country's health minister, Richard Sezibera, said today on Sarah Bosely's global health blog:

Rwanda has 60,000 community health workers who help get individuals the care they need. They get women to the clinic for antenatal visits. They help children in the villages get their immunization shots. We will work with them to make sure these girls get all the three shots they require.