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Thursday, May 30, 2024

DOH Chief: I will reach out to DBM for additional HPV immunization budget

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To eliminate cervical cancer in the country, Department of Health Secretary Teodoro “Ted” J. Herbosa says that the government needs to expand its immunization program to accommodate vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) among all pre-puberty girls, which will entail a corresponding increase in budget.

“I want all the girls—whether they are from private or public schools, middle income or poor—to be vaccinated…I will push this with DBM [Department of Budget and Management], to fund HPV vaccination at the pre-puberty stage [so we can achieve] 95% fully immunized child coverage,” Herbosa said in an interview at Kapihan sa Manila Bay.  

More than 95% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections. HPV immunization for girls aged 9-14 years, before they become sexually active, is a crucial step in eliminating the disease. However, the latest census indicates that there are 16 million girls below age 15 in the country, but the DOH’s free HPV vaccination only covers an estimated 2.7 million girls, said Herbosa. 

The DOH Secretary pointed out that skimping on cervical cancer prevention could mean increased spending on treatment later on. In 2020 alone, the Philippine government spent PhP46.63 billion on cancer treatment, when cervical cancer cases are preventable through early vaccination against HPV. Moreover, the HPV vaccine can also protect against other types of cancer caused by HPV infections: anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal.

“The HPV vaccine is a cancer vaccine that can be very, very helpful. I want it [in the national immunization] program and funded by taxes. I want it funded by the DBM. We’ll still be paying for treatment, which is also expensive, so let’s use the money for prevention instead,” Herbosa said, partly in the vernacular. 

Early vaccination, with the target of 90% of girls fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine by age 15, is part of the World Health Organization’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer. While cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, it has a higher incidence in the Philippines, being the second most frequent cancer among Filipinas—particularly among those aged 15 to 44. Annually, there are over 8 thousand Filipino women diagnosed with cervical cancer and 12 die from the disease every day. There are currently almost 40 million Filipinas at risk of developing cervical cancer.

In a separate public statement, Hon. Angelica Natasha Co of the BHW Partylist (Barangay Health Wellness Association, Inc.) and Vice-Chairperson of the House Committee on Health is proposing that the HPV vaccine be administered not only among public and private school children, but also target populations outside of school. She proposes that the National Immunization Program (NIP) be expanded to benefit all ages, not just children, with immunization for cancer considered a national program. 

“The national government should appropriate for immunization and not just leave it to the LGUs (local government units) which are already over-burdened with the cost of promoting basic health services. This could also address our concern concerning the reduction of the budget allocation under the NIP for HPV vaccines from 1 million doses in 2023 to 750,000 doses in 2024 which will mean that several regions will have zero allocation,” said Co. 

For his part, Herbosa cited Australia, the first country in the world to initiate a national publicly-funded HPV vaccination program, as a good case study of the effectiveness of expanded immunization. 

Australia started administering the HPV vaccine to girls aged 12 to 13 in 2007, and introduced catch-up HPV vaccinations to the 14 to 26 age bracket in 2009. As a result, the rate of HPV infection among Australian women aged 18 to 24 dropped from 22.7% to 1.5% by 2015. Australia extended its free immunization to boys aged 12 to 14 in 2013, and recent research has also shown a decline in HPV among males.

“Cases have dropped in Australia. They even pushed it to the men; they are even giving the boys the HPV vaccine. Men and boys can also transmit the virus, they are carriers,” said Herbosa. 

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