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The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been available for nearly two decades, but women and girls in middle- and low-income countries in Asia experience financial, logistical, and psychological barriers to receiving it, leading to higher incidences of cervical cancer.

Harvard Public Health spoke with the lead author of a study on the subject, Sokking Ong, an adjunct professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam’s Pengiran Anak Puteri Rashidah Sa’adatul Bolkiah Institute of Health Sciences, in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.

Why study this topic?

The HPV vaccine has been licensed since 2006 to prevent cervical cancer. But despite having an effective vaccine available for nearly twenty years, the majority of girls worldwide are deprived of opportunities to get the HPV vaccine. More than 600,000 women are—still—diagnosed with cervical cancer each year globally, and more than 300,000 women die from the disease.

What did you find?

Globally, few girls actually receive the HPV vaccine—only 15 percent in 2021, according to the World Health Organization. Vaccination rates were even lower in Asia—about 4 percent in WHO’s Western Pacific Region (among countries like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines) and about 2 percent in Southeast Asia.

We identified a number of long-standing barriers to vaccination in Asia: a shortage of HPV vaccine supplies, a lack of affordability due to limited government subsidies, vaccine hesitancy, and a lack of knowledge about cervical cancer prevention, among other things.

What would you like to see happen based on the study’s results?

We need strong political and financial commitments—not only from national governments, but also from international agencies and partners. Vaccination and cancer screenings need to be included in primary care services without asking women and girls to pay fees. The whole vaccine supply chain needs to be improved. And more evidence-based communication must be offered to raise awareness and reduce misinformation.

—Jo Zhou

(Study in The Lancet, July 2023)

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