Among the little positive news trickling in was that India’s indigenously developed quadrivalent Human Papilloma Virus (qHPV) vaccine for prevention of cervical cancer, approved by the Drug Controller General in July, will be commercially available later this year at an affordable cost of Rs 200 to Rs 400 per shot. The availability and affordability allow the vaccine to be used widely and, eventually, could take the battle against cervical cancer to the next level. India has had not one but two vaccines against cervical cancer, one quadrivalent and the other bivalent, in the last decade or so but both the imported ones have been priced ten times higher than this one developed by Serum Institute of India aided by the Department of Biotechnology.
The initial claims are that the vaccine, administered to girls between the ages of nine and 14, is likely to prevent cervical cancer in 80 per cent of the cases where it is caused by the virus. For a complete spread, this vaccine will have to be a key component of India’s national immunisation programme, and possibly extended to pre-adolescent boys in whom it has been shown to prevent other cancers later. Most kinds of cervical cancers are the result of transmitted infection of the HPV, usually during sexual acts, putting women in sex work at high risk. Other risk factors include early marriage, multiple pregnancies, and so on.
Cervical cancer is more widespread in India than is commonly believed: It is the second most common kind of cancer among women after breast cancer, more than 1.25 lakh women are diagnosed with it every year but many of them incidentally and in the last stages, nearly 70,000 of those diagnosed die of it, and more than 70 per cent of the cervical cancers caused around the world due to the HPV 16 and HPV 18 are found in India. Merely having two vaccines on the shelves did not help because most families could not afford it. Immunisation, especially if it covers the pre-adolescent population could reduce the incidence of cervical cancers in the decades to come. After the polio vaccine and Covid-19 vaccines, India’s delivery mechanism is not in doubt. The indigenous vaccine offers a ray of hope but much depends on its availability through a mandated programme and the government’s mass awareness campaign.
Bail at last, in a case that shouldn’t exist
After more than two months, journalist and social activist Teesta Setalvad secured interim bail on Friday in a case that should not have even been filed against her and former Gujarat top cop RB Sreekumar. The Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice UU Lalit, Justices Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia granted her interim bail in the case of alleged fabrication of documents to file cases about Gujarat riots of 2002. Setalvad, individually and through her non-governmental organisation, has been providing financial and legal support to the survivors of the large-scale riots that left the state scarred.
The immediate provocation for her arrest on June 26 this year was that her case, filed along with Zakia Jafri, widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who was brutally hacked during the riots, which challenged the Special Investigation Team’s “clean chit” to the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was dismissed by the SC. The remarks in that SC order motivated a FIR in Ahmedabad which led to her and Sreekumar being arrested. In that sense, the SC order of interim bail is a small step to correct the uncalled-for remarks that cast aspersions on Setalvad, Sreekumar and others who had stood by the victims to challenge the powers-that-be.
This is not to suggest that the activists are above question or the law of the land, but to point out that the swift action by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad based on the vague FIR — which by all reckoning does not even state the exact nature of accusations — reeks of political vendetta and persecution of a particularly malicious kind. Setalvad’s bail applications in the sessions court and Gujarat High Court were turned down. Considering that the SC has tossed the bail plea back to the Gujarat HC, the sliver of justice is slim indeed. The SC bench also made it clear that the order does not apply to Sreekumar and, quite unnecessarily, her being “a lady” in custody for two months has been considered. This is awkward — citizens should be granted bail if their case merits it, not because of their gender. The case against her and Sreekumar, though flimsy, is likely to meander given the political implications involved, but she has some breathing space now.