European Union policy makers asked to do more to stop cervical cancer

Brussels 25 January 2007A petition calling on the European Union (EU) institutions and national governments to do more to reduce the number of cervical cancer incidences was presented in Brussels on 23 January during the first ever European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. Every year, around 50.000 women develop cervical cancer in Europe, and around 25.000 women die from it. Ironically, although cervical cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide, it is also one of the easiest forms of cancer to catch early and treat. Effective, organised screening programmes can prevent up to 80 percent of cervical cancers. The European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week was intended to raise awareness of cervical cancer and the importance of screening, mobilise experts, and ensure that policy makers understand that the means are available to virtually eliminate cervical cancer.

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The petition, signed by 54 organisations from 20 countries and more than 40 Members of European Parliament (MEPs), asks decision makers to implement organised cervical cancer screening programmes in accordance with EU guidelines, and to facilitate the exchange of best practice between Member States. The petition also calls for support for research to establish the most appropriate means for using new technologies within public health programmes, and for recognition for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to reduce cervical cancer incidences.

Speaking on 23 January, several MEPs highlighted the differences in mortality rate between European countries. In the EU's 12 newer EU Member States and in other eastern European countries, the incidence and mortality rates are twice those of the 15 older EU members. The difference can be attributed to women's access to screening programmes.

"The equitable distribution of social and health benefits must be seen in all parts of the EU. We will not eliminate cervical cancer if the (new) vaccine is only given to the wealth and well-educated in some Member States. These are the people already benefiting from screening", stated Lithuanian MEP Jolanta Dickuté.

UK MEP Glenis Willmott called on the EU's newer Member States to make use of the expertise garnered by the United Kingdom over the last 20 years. She acknowledged that health care is "jealously guarded by the Member States", but added that this does not mean that European actors can do nothing. The Commission's guidelines, expected soon, will put the Member States under pressure to match what others are doing, she stated.

Much research in the past has focused on the development of a vaccine for cervical cancer. The disease is caused by certain types of the Human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV, and around 15 of them are associated with the development of cervical cancer.

Genital HPVs are usually spread through sexual contact and are so common that all sexually active adults are likely to have had HPV at some time in their lives. In most cases the infection disappears on its own within 6 to 12 months. HPV can however cause pre-cancerous changes in the cells of the cervix, and these can be picked up by a Pap smear test.

Scientists have been looking for ways to prevent women from contracting HPV. Two different vaccines are currently undergoing clinical trials, and both look promising. Both vaccines have been designed to protect against the two most common genital HPV types: 16 and 18. Together, these two strains are responsible for between 60 and 70 percent of cervical cancers.

As the vaccines are designed to prevent women from picking up HPV in the first place, they would be most effective if administered to girls before they become sexually active. Researchers are looking into the best time to administer the vaccine.

The EU is funding several research projects looking to reduce cervical cancer incidences under its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The majority focus on facilitating diagnosis. The MICROACTIVE project is seeking to make screening cheaper and therefore available to all by making it possible for a family doctor to make a diagnosis at his or her surgery. This will speed up diagnosis, decrease patient anxiety and enable treatment to begin sooner. Key to the project is biomarker mRNA detection.

The SmartHEALTH project has received EU funding of 12,3 million euro to develop an open, integrated architecture for new, bio-diagnostic systems to support companies exploiting bio-assays. The system is likely to involve a disposable fluid-based cartridge with a desktop base station that links to an ambient e-health environment offering health cards, patient data, and on-line services.

An IT approach is also being pursued by the ASSIST project, which is developing the technology to bring together patient records in repositories. Having patient details in one place will help researchers seeking to identify new markers of risk, diagnosis and prognosis. The repositories will also enable researchers to create study groups "on demand" and to recycle patient records in new studies. Hopefully this will allow experts to find links between HPV, patient habits and patient genotype.

The European Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection is currently drafting updated guidelines on cervical cancer screening, which are due to be published soon. For further information on the European Cervical Cancer Association (ECCA), you can visit the ECCA web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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