Like Coronavirus, vaccines do provide protection against a few types of cancers such as liver cancer, cervical cancer, oral cancer, etc.
However, due to a lack of knowledge, many people don’t get themselves vaccinated. These vaccines can be administered at any age but you need to take it before you contract the infection – as it won’t be effective once an individual gets the disease.
Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh who died in 2020 and former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vilasrao Deshmukh who lost his battle against liver cancer in 2012 are two instances among many others who could have been saved with timely vaccination.
Doctors say that two preventable viral infection – Human papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B – cause hundreds of deaths in India as there is a complete lack of awareness about available vaccination for adults.
There are over 100 types of HVP out of which only 14 can cause cancer. They transmit from one person to another through sexual or skin to skin contact.
Cancers of the cervical, anus, vulva, vagina, penis, and oropharynx are caused due to HPV. On the other hand, Hepatitis B is one of the prominent reasons for liver cancer and an individual can be vaccinated against it at any age.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through either blood transfusion or skin to skin contact like sex, kisses, etc. Experts say that Hepatitis B is 100 times more transmissible than HIV.
Dr Ishwar Gilada, President, AIDS Society of India says that Hepatitis B was included in the government’s universal immunisation programme in 2011 only and all those people who were born before 2011 have not been vaccinated against this virus.
“They can be vaccinated now but unfortunately we are not aware of adult vaccination because it has never been given any publicity by the government in India,” Gilada says.
He adds, “People who were born before 2011 should get vaccinated against Hepatitis B now and protect themselves from the possibility of getting liver cancer.”
There are many other reasons also that cause liver cancer, however, Hepatitis B happens to be the major reason.
“5 to 10 per cent people in India have Hepatitis B which is a huge population in terms of numbers,” Gilada says.
Other experts agree that the government should launch a vaccination drive for adults against these preventable types of cancer.
But why has science not been able to develop vaccines to protect against all types of cancer?
Experts say that the principle of immune-therapy is that before an antigen (foreign object) enters the body, the cells of the human body can be trained in advance and directed against those antigens. That’s why people are vaccinated to train their cells to fight against the particular antigen.
Dr Subramaniyam Rao, Director, and Head of Surgical Oncology, Basavatarakam Indo American Cancer Hospital & Research Institute says that the challenge with cancer is that tumours in the human body produce multiple antigens.
“So if some part of the antigen can be made susceptible with the help vaccine the other parts will escape and vaccines don’t work,” Rao said.
He added, “You can say cancer is way smarter than a virus and it is difficult to beat it with a vaccine. It outsmarts human efforts easily because of its multi-channel growth pathways.”
Dr Rahul Bhargava, Director and Head, Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, says that immunity can be directed against some virus, bacteria, or disease but one must know the causative reason for it.
“We don’t know the reasons for several types of cancer. For instance, we don’t know what causes blood cancer,” Bhargava said.
He adds, “Having said that, I request the government to conduct a study on the cost-effectiveness of the HPV vaccine in India. After that, it should be made mandatory in India like it is in the USA. It will save hundreds of lives.”