BY CATHY CLARK
This year the World Health Organization and partners celebrate World Immunization Week April 24-30 to promote awareness of the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease.
During the middle of the last century scientists and the healthcare community took down the devastating diseases polio and smallpox through vaccination. Yet today, there are still 19.4 million unvaccinated and under-vaccinated children in the world.
"And we now know that infection is the cause of nearly two million cancer cases, accounting for 18% of the worldwide cancer burden," says Anna Giuliano, PhD, director of Moffitt Cancer Center’s Center for Infection Research in Cancer.
The possibilities within the field of infection research are global. Giuliano cites the human papillomavirus (HPV) as one of the more recently identified cancer-causing infectious agents. "One in 20 cancers is caused by the HPV virus," she says. "And we can prevent those one in 20 cancers with the HPV vaccine."
In 1995, HPV was thought to cause only cervical cancer. In 2005, evidence indicated that HPV causes multiple cancers. "Today, with just one vaccine, we can prevent four different types of cancer affecting both women and men," says Giuliano.
Moreover, Giuliano believes it is possible to not merely prevent but actually eliminate HPV-related cancers, starting with cervical cancer. "And when I say eliminate, I’m talking about getting to near zero – very similar to what we accomplished with polio, with measles."
Moffitt scientists and physicians, especially through the Center for Infection Research in Cancer, collaborate with faculty worldwide. "And that includes faculty in Australia, South Africa, Morocco, different countries in Europe, our friends in Mexico, Latin America as well as in Canada. And as a group we are all committed to the elimination of HPV-related diseases, starting with cervical cancer," says Giuliano. “We have worked as a team to understand the virus, understand how it causes the cancers, as well as worked as a team to develop and test the vaccines that prevent those cancers, with the aim of eliminating those cancers worldwide.
"My hope is that we continue to understand the benefits of vaccination, to not only prevent the horrible illnesses that the children have been suffering who don’t have access to vaccine…but to extend that benefit to eliminating cancers caused by viruses, starting with the HPV-related cancers."
Immunization saves millions of lives and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective health interventions. Specifically, immunization prevents illness, disability and death from vaccine-preventable diseases including cervical cancer, diphtheria, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumonia, polio, rotavirus diarrhea, rubella and tetanus, according to the World Health Organization.