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[CAPE TOWN] The Nobel laureate who discovered that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer has called for a worldwide campaign to implement vaccination programmes against the disease.

Harald zur Hausen, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine, told the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics in Cape Town, South Africa, last week (4–9 October) that a global effort to vaccinate girls and boys before they become sexually active would wipe out the virus.

Vaccines could have the biggest impact on women in the developing world, where screening facilities are often non-existent and cervical cancer is on the rise, the conference heard.

About 500,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year, 80 per cent in the developing world, where more than half are fatal. The disease is the most common cancer in women in Africa, and developing nations could continue to bear a heavy burden, says Xavier Bosch from the Catalan Institute of Oncology in Spain.

Two vaccines are now available, made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck, which are almost 100 per cent effective in preventing their target HPV infections (see Vaccines can fight South's top fatal cancer in women).

"At this stage cost is the major impediment, but with [improved financial mechanisms] I think this will change and a global vaccination programme will be in place," said zur Hausen.

The GSK vaccine costs €465 (US$686) for three shots in Europe, US$360 in the United States but only US$40 in Mexico, he said, adding that organisations such as the WHO are working to make the shots available in the developing world.

In a GSK symposium, hosted at the congress, Bosch said the company is looking at a tiered system where rich countries pay more than low resource countries for the vaccine.

Zur Hausen said that while vaccination programmes should focus on girls and young women aged 9 to 25, before they are exposed to HPV, boys must also be vaccinated to eliminate the virus.

HPV also causes about four per cent of cancers in men — mainly anal, penile and oral cancers — all of which are on the rise in Africa.

The cervical cancer vaccine will stand alongside other "great vaccines" for measles, smallpox and polio and has the potential to save lives for decades to come, says Dorothy Shaw, outgoing president of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), which hosted the conference.