Prof. Herald zur Hausen will share
this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery
that the human
papilloma virus (HPV)
causes cervical cancer. Cervical cancer kills nearly a quarter
of a million women every year, with eight out of ten deaths occurring
in developing countries.
Zur Hausen’s research paved the
way for the first vaccine against cancer in medical history. Two HPV
vaccines are available, Merck’s Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix.
Lindsay Beyerstein of RH Reality Check reached Prof. zur Hausen by phone at his office in Heidelberg, Germany
LINDSAY BEYERSTEIN: You’ve been
critical of the manufacturers of the HPV vaccines in the past. Can you
say a little more about that? [A 3-shot course of Merck’s HPV vaccine,
Gardasil, can cost over $300 U.S.]
ZUR HAUSEN: Not of vaccine manufacturers,
of the prices, which have now been used for the two types of HPV vaccines.
These costs are unbearable for the developing world.
Eighty-three percent of cervical
cancer occurs in the developing world. But the vaccines are totally
unaffordable. The greatest severity of cervical cancer is in sub-Saharan
Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
Both major vaccine companies are
considering the issue very seriously and even negotiating the price
BEYERSTEIN: What needs to be done
to make the vaccine more affordable?
ZUR HAUSEN: We need to create a bit
of public pressure. The prices should be reduced even more.
Some developing countries have initiatives
to produce vaccines on their own.
BEYERSTEIN: How are these other pharmaceutical
companies proposing to make their own vaccines? Are they copying the
existing vaccines? Do they have a license to do this?
ZUR HAUSEN: I only have a vague idea.
Eight Indian companies are talking about producing the vaccine on their
own. One claims to have patent, but I’m not sure.
BEYERSTEIN: The Gardasil vaccine
has been very controversial in the United States. Is this kind response
ZUR HAUSEN: There has been controversy
in a number of countries. There has been very aggressive policy. I don’t
feel this is the right way to do it. But it these things been done.
It has been a miscredit to the vaccine.
In the United States there have been
religious considerations that the vaccination would lead to enhanced
promiscuity of early age. I think it’s not a different a different
problem than the introduction of contraceptive pills.
There is also concern about the potential
side effects of the vaccine. I have tried to get data on all cases of
side effects. No vaccine is without any risk. There may occasionally
be an allergic reaction [to the HPV vaccine]. What I know so far is
that the vaccine doesn’t have more side effects than other vaccines that
are given to young people.
BEYERSTEIN: What do you mean when
you say the vaccine has been promoted very aggressively?
ZUR HAUSEN: It shouldn’t be. I heard
that a school class was offered 500 Euro if all the children got the
vaccination, that is awful. It should left at the individual decision.
There should not be pressure. If they want to be vaccinated, they should.
If a school class gets some benefit if everyone gets vaccinated, that’s
BEYERSTEIN: Are you against mandatory
vaccines? In the U.S. children are required to get many vaccines, like
polio and measles. I almost wasn’t allowed to graduate from university
because I hadn’t gotten my measles shot.
ZUR HAUSEN: If you want to require
a vaccination by law, that’s a different story, if it’s seen as public
health matter. Then it’s up to public health officials. But if it’s
BEYERSTEIN: It was a company that
was offering the students money for vaccinations?
ZUR HAUSEN: I think it was a company.
A reporter told me about it. It might be a rumor. I don’t have accurate
BEYERSTEIN: Setting aside the specific
example, what you’re saying is that in general companies are pushing
Some people think that boys and girls
should receive the vaccine. Is that your position?
ZUR HAUSEN: My viewpoint is that
I strongly advocate vaccinating boys and girls. The vaccine protects
against 90% of genital warts. Genital warts occur as much in men as in
women. Very nasty, very high recurrence. Anal cancer occurs more frequently
in males than females. Also, 25%-30% of head and neck cancers are linked
I am always stating this is a question
of gender solidarity.
BEYERSTEIN: What are you working
ZUR HAUSEN: I am trying to link HPV
infections to leukemia and lymphoma.
BEYERSTEIN: Do you have any advice
for readers contemplating a career in science?
ZUR HAUSEN: It is very difficult
to provide general advice, but if you think you have a good idea, stick