Canada should invest in preventing a wholly preventable disease

June 30, 2010

Canada should ensure that some of the $1.1-billion to which it committed itself in the Muskoka Initiative goes to new state-of-the-art cervical cancer screening technologies that could help save the lives of tens of thousands of women in the developing world.

These new DNA tests have revolutionized diagnosis and treatment, bypassing the shortcomings of the conventional Pap smear that is used to detect high-risk strains of the human papilloma virus, the primary risk factor for cervical cancer.

Almost all the 274,000 patients who die every year of this wholly preventable and treatable disease live in the developing world, where women, especially those from isolated, rural areas, don't have access to screening. When the disease goes untreated, the death is a long and painful one.

One new screen for HPV, known as careHPV, was expressly developed for use in poor countries, and will drastically improve access to diagnosis and treatment, according to scientists who will share the latest research in this area, on Monday at an international conference in Montreal.

The careHPV is a molecular DNA test that can be administered by health-care workers with little training, in hot, humid climates in settings that do not have electricity or running water. The test can identify, in 2 1/2 hours, the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

The test is twice as effective at detection as the conventional Pap smear. Developed by Qiagen, a pharmaceutical company, and PATH, a non-profit organization, the screening has been certified in Europe, and is awaiting qualification by the World Health Organization, which would allow United Nations agencies to purchase it for distribution in developing countries.

Across Canada, a vaccine for HPV is already offered free of charge to pre-teen and teenaged girls. It is aimed at preventing four types of this sexually transmitted virus that are linked to cervical cancer. Ottawa should also help reduce the global burden of this disease by making cervical cancer prevention an integral part of the G8 maternal and reproductive health initiative.

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