LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. drugmaker Merck and German diagnostics firm Qiagen are donating millions of human papillomaviros (HPV) vaccines and 250,000 HPV tests to Rwanda to start a national cervical cancer prevention programme.
Merck said on Monday it would provide Rwanda with 2 million doses of its Gardasil vaccine over three years.
The shot costs around $130 a dose in the United States and protects against HPV -- a sexually transmitted virus that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.
Genetic-testing specialist Qiagen is providing 250,000 HPV DNA tests for free during the first three years of the programme. They will be used to screen women aged 35-45 for HPV, while the vaccines will be offered to all Rwandan girls aged 12-15.
Mark Feinberg, Merck's vice president of medical affairs and policy said that after the first three years, Rwanda was committed to paying for the vaccine at a "dramatically" reduced price to continue the nationwide programme.
He declined to specify that price but said the firm wanted to make sure Gardasil would be affordable.
"We do not want the price of the vaccine to be a barrier for these lower income countries to be able to introduce it," he said in an interview.
Qiagen will also make its HPV tests available under a tiered-market pricing structure aimed at making its product affordable in developing countries.
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women in Rwanda, with more women dying from the disease than any other cancer, including breast and ovarian cancer.
Prevention strategies are considered crucial, particularly since there are huge infrastructure and cost barriers to cancer treatment in Africa.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women and was expected to kill 328,000 this year. Merck said current estimates indicated that every year in Rwanda, 986 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 678 died from it, and these numbers were expected to nearly double by 2025.
Rwandan Health Minister Dr Richard Sezibera said the vaccination programme would bring his country one step closer to being able to protect girls and women from cervical cancer.
"It is our goal to create a comprehensive, coordinated programme that includes HPV vaccination, cancer screening with HPV DNA testing and treatment," he said in a statement.
Rival drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline also makes a vaccine against HPV, called Cervarix.
Many wealthy countries have started HPV immunisation programmes with these shots for girls before they become sexually active, but the vaccines are generally too expensive and inaccessible for most people living in poorer nations.
The global vaccines alliance GAVI, which funds bulk-buy vaccination programmes in developing countries where governments cannot afford to buy shots at Western prices, has said it would be keen to fund HPV vaccines in the future. Shortages of international donor funds meant it was focused on providing rotavirus and pneumococcal vaccination campaigns first.
When its HPV vaccination programme for girls begins on Monday, Rwanda will become the first GAVI-eligible country to start a nationwide cervical cancer prevention programme. The screening of women will start later this year.
Feinberg said Merck and Qiagen were also in talks with several other poorer countries, mainly in Africa, about reaching similar agreements in the future.