By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - The GAVI global vaccines group is to help protect more than 180,000 girls in eight countries across Africa and Asia from cervical cancer by funding immunization projects with vaccines from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.
The non-profit GAVI Alliance, which funds bulk-buy vaccination programs for poor nations, said on Monday that Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Tanzania would be the first countries to get its support for cervical cancer protection pilot projects.
Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix vaccines are the world's only two approved shots designed to protect against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes the vast majority of cervical cancer cases.
More than 85 percent of cervical cancer deaths occur in developing nations and 275,000 women die of the disease each year. This means cervical cancer now kills more women worldwide than childbirth, claiming a life every two minutes, GAVI said.
Experts say the annual worldwide cervical cancer death rate could rise to 430,000 by 2030 if no action is taken to protect more women from it.
"Introducing the HPV vaccine in developing countries is the start of a global effort to protect all girls against cervical cancer," GAVI chief executive Seth Berkley said in a statement.
A study published in 2011 found that since 1980 new cervical cancer case numbers and deaths have dropped substantially in rich countries - many of which have screening programs and have also recently introduced HPV vaccinations - but risen dramatically in Africa and other poor regions.
GAVI - backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF, donor governments and others - has been working with the vaccine manufacturers to secure the most affordable price for the shots.
Merck has said it is prepared to offer Gardasil to GAVI countries at a deeply discounted price of $5 per dose, meaning a three-dose course would cost $15. GAVI has previously described this as a "a good starting offer".
The pilot projects are designed to give countries a chance to test whether they can put in place the systems needed to roll out HPV vaccines nationally.
Unlike most other vaccines, which are given to babies and children under age five, HPV vaccines are designed to be given to girls aged nine to 13 in an effort to protect them before they are likely to become sexually active.
One major challenge to effectively delivering HPV vaccines is that many developing countries do not offer routine health services for girls in this age group. But GAVI said initial experience in offering HPV vaccines through schools in Africa, Asia and Latin America had been encouraging.
By 2015, GAVI says it hopes to help more than 20 countries immunize around a million girls with HPV vaccines through pilot projects, and by 2020 it hopes to have helped more than 30 million girls in over 40 countries to get the vaccine.
(Editing by Stephen Powell)