2005-11-21

Health & Intolerance: Fuss about Cancer Trials in Glasgow

Young Scottish women have become the first in the UK to be given a controversial vaccine designed to eradicate cervical cancer. Apparently 360 young women from Glasgow were chosen for clinical trials because of the city's high levels of underage sex and related sexual health problems. Aged between 16 and 23, the women are the only patients in the UK to be given 'Gardasil', the first vaccine in the world to provide protection against the cancer. It works by giving women immunity to different types of a sexually transmitted virus that causes around 70 per cent of cervical cancers. An high level of sexual activity greatly increases the risk of cervical cancer, so Glasgow was chosen to test the vaccine, which if approved for general use could help save thousands of lives every year. Despite health experts calling for urgent action to tackle Scotland's poor sexual health record, the vaccine faces fierce opposition as the manufacturers say it is vastly more effective if given to patients before they are sexually active and should therefore be prescribed to girls as young as 10. Details of the trial emerged after executives from drugs firm 'Sanofi Pasteur MSD' met with officials from 'The Scottish Executive' health department last week to brief them about the new vaccine. Recent figures from 'The National Cancer Intelligence Centre' revealed that most regions of Scotland had incidence rates of up to a third higher than the national average. In Scotland, more than 500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and around 100 die. High levels of underage sex have also alarmed public health experts who fear it is helping to fuel the spread of the virus. More than 30 per cent of girls aged 15 are already sexually active.
'So far the vaccine has been 100 per cent effective,' said Mr.Gordon Crawford of Glasgow-based CPS Research, which ran the trial. 'We haven't seen anyone given the vaccine test positive for pre-cancerous cells. 'This trial was part of a much bigger worldwide study looking at the effectiveness of the vaccine, and our results have been reflected elsewhere.'
Around 260 women from Glasgow were given the first injections of the vaccine two years ago and a further 100 were vaccinated this year. They were recruited through their GPs after researchers advertised for young women who had had fewer than three sexual partners. The vaccine, which is given in three doses over a six-month period, conveys immunity against different strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which cause about 70 per cent of all cervical cancers. The virus is usually transmitted through sexual contact. Researchers will now carry out regular tests on the women for a further two years to see if the vaccine protects them against the disease. Mr.Crawford said:
'We will now look at the long-term effect and see if it gives lifelong protection or if patients will need a booster shot. 'If approved for use in this country, the vaccine could help solve a major public health problem.'
Currently women are given routine smear tests every three years once they become sexually active to check for the early signs of the cancer. Screening programmes in the UK have led to a significant drop in the number of deaths from cervical cancer by detecting cells infected with the viruses before they turn cancerous. But nearly a fifth of women invited fail to attend appointments, meaning many cancers are missed. 'Sanofi Pasteur' claims that its vaccine would be most effective if given to girls as young as 10 years old so they have immunity against the viruses before they become sexually active.
'Scotland has cervical cancer death rates that are slightly above the rest of the EU,' said Mr.Nicholas Kitchin, the company's medical director.
'This is partly due to the higher levels of underage sex and lower uptake of screening. 'Infection rates with HPV rise very steeply from about the age of 13 years old as people become sexually active, so it is important to vaccinate them before that happens.'
But this has angered some critics who claim it will encourage children to have underage sex because it will make them believe it is safer. A spokesman for The Roman Christian Church said:
'To mass-vaccinate all 10 to 15-year-old girls has the potential to send out "the wrong signals".
'There are other sexually transmitted diseases besides HPV that can be spread by casual sex, and by eliminating one element of risk it might act as a "green light" for promiscuous behaviour.'
'Scots teenagers first to test cervical cancer vaccine ', Richard Gray, The Scotsman, 2005-11-20, Su

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