Virus publicity to save lives

Viet Nam News, 1 December 2012.

Professor Harald zur Hausen, awarded the 2008 Nobel Laureate for Medicine for his discovery that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer, spoke to Viet Nam News while he was here as one of keynote speakers at the fourth ASEAN event series "Bridges-Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace", organised by the International Peace Foundation.

What were the results of your meeting with the Minister of Health and other cancer experts?

We discussed cancer vaccination concerns and the possibility of exchanges between scientists and researchers from Viet Nam and other countries to combat cancer and boost prevention. Vietnamese scientists, particularly the young ones, will gain lots of benefits from working abroad for several years as they will have the chance to experience other cultures and alternative ways of working. I myself benefited immensely when I worked in the United States for three years. I also spoke about the fact that there are some international agencies and scientists who intend to Viet Nam and assist with vaccination programmes. I would like to return to the country again to deliver more scientific speeches and lectures on cancer-related issues.

Could you explain the work that won you the 2008 Nobel Prize?

I first postulated a role for HPV in cervical cancer during the 1970s. I assumed the tumor cells, if they contained an oncogenic virus, should harbor viral DNA integrated into their genomes. The HPV genes promoting cell proliferation should therefore be detectable by specifically searching tumor cells for such viral DNA. I pursued this idea for over 10 years by searching for different HPV types, a search made difficult by the fact that only parts of the viral DNA were integrated into the host genome. I and my colleagues found novel HPV-DNA in cervix cancer biopsies and thus discovered the new, tumorigenic HPV16 type in 1983. I cloned HPV16 and 18 from patients with cervical cancer in 1984. The HPV types 16 and 18 were consistently found in about 70 per cent of cervical cancer biopsies throughout the world. More than 5 per cent of all cancers worldwide are caused by persistent infections of this virus. HPV can be detected in 99.7 per cent of women with histologically confirmed cervical cancer, affecting some 500,000 per year, most of them in developing countries.
HPV 16 and 18 became available to the scientific community and vaccines were ultimately developed that provide better than 95 per cent protection from infection by the high risk HPV 16 and 18 types.

There are more than 2,200 new cases of cervical cancer every year in Viet Nam. However, the HPV vaccine has yet to become popular in the country due to public concerns. How could the country popularize the HPV vaccination?

It is necessary to spread more propaganda about HPV vaccination. I am deeply convinced that health officers should widely publicise this. Both boys and girls aged between eight and 14 should have HPV vaccination shots to protect them from cancer. People should acknowledge that the vaccine is safe and effective for them as the side-effects from vaccination are very normal.
If people remain doubtful, they should try to become better informed as information and samples are available everywhere. It is, however, quite expensive to have HPV vaccine shots. Viet Nam should negotiate with vaccine-producing companies to subsidise part of the cost for vaccinations as a measure to popularise the vaccine.

Viet Nam is one of the countries with the highest rates of people contracting cancer of the lung, breast, stomach and liver. What should the country do to deal with this situation?

Propaganda again needs to take effect. People should be made aware that bad lifestyles often lead to cancer. For example, it is necessary to make people feel uncomfortable and unpleasant when smoking in public places or office buildings to make them consider quitting, while they should also avoid eating rare or well-grilled meat, especially beef. Vaccination also plays an important role in reducing cancer rates. — VNS