Poonam Pandey, model-actress, internet sensation and one of the most controversial stars in India, died due to cervical cancer on February 2. The death of Pandey due to cervical cancer and a push by the government in its budget to vaccinate girls has put the spotlight on the disease. The 32-year-old, renowned for her modelling and strong social media presence, bravely fought against the disease before passing away. As we come to terms with the tragic loss, her demise compels us all to recognise the critical need for increased awareness and proactive measures against preventable diseases like cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. In India alone, approximately more than 1 lakh women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, and it is the second most common cancer among Indian women aged 15-44 years. These statistics highlight the urgent need for preventive measures to combat this disease. Regular screening with Pap smears or HPV tests can detect precancerous lesions, enabling early intervention and cancer prevention. However, screening rates in India, particularly in rural areas, are alarmingly low, leading to late-stage diagnoses and inadequate access to timely treatment, resulting in avoidable loss of life.
While presenting the budget plan for 2024-25 in Parliament on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the new interim budget focuses on women’s health and the new budget will include a cervical cancer vaccine in the government’s national immunisation programme. The government will encourage the vaccination against cervical cancer of girls in the age group of 9-14 years for the prevention of the disease. “Our government will encourage vaccination for girls in the age group of 9 to 14 years for the prevention of cervical cancer,” the Finance Minister said.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that can be transmitted through sexual contact. While most HPV infections do not cause any noticeable symptoms and clear up on their own, some strains can lead to abnormal cell growth in the cervix, which can eventually develop into cancer if left untreated. The HPV vaccine trials for cervical cancer had already reached their end. In 2010, trials were clouded in controversy following reports that some girls had died following HPV administration.
The most effective way to prevent cervical cancer is through vaccination against HPV. The vaccine is most effective when given before exposure to the virus, which is why it is recommended for girls aged 9-14 years. The government’s plan to encourage cervical cancer vaccination for girls aged 9-14 years is a step in the right direction towards achieving its goal of eliminating cervical cancer by 2030. By making the vaccine more accessible and affordable, more girls will have the opportunity to protect themselves against this deadly disease.