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Drugmakers, groups team up to vaccinate girls

TRENTON -- Two multinational drugmakers are teaming up with top global health groups to protect millions of girls in the world's poorest countries from deadly cervical cancer.

Starting with pilot programs in eight Asian and African nations, the project ultimately is intended to inoculate more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries by 2020. Given that most women killed by cervical cancer live in developing countries, the project could have a huge impact.

It was announced yesterday by the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership that's worked with drugmakers to deliver affordable vaccines to poor countries to treat childhood illnesses that are big killers.

Drugmakers Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC initially will provide 2.4 million doses of their vaccines against cancer-causing human papilloma virus -- for a fraction of the cost commanded in Western countries.

Merck will supply Gardasil for $4.50 per dose, and Glaxo its Cervarix for $4.60 per dose. In the United States, the shots cost well over $100 apiece.

In developed countries, older girls and women routinely get Pap tests to check for cervical cancer or signs of precancerous changes. They're treated promptly, often before cancer begins, and few die. Increasingly, young girls and now boys are vaccinated with Gardisil or Cervarix, starting as young as age 9 so they're protected well before they become sexually active.

Not so in poor countries.

"They don't have the benefit of screening to catch cancer early, when it can still be treated," Dr. Julie Gerberding, president of Merck Vaccines, said in an interview.

As a result, 85 percent of the 275,000 women killed by cervical cancer each year live in poor countries, where HPV is most prevalent.

"It is a disease that has devastating, life-threatening consequences and it is preventable," said Gerberding, an infectious diseases expert who's a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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