GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co have slashed the price on their respective human papillomavirus vaccines to protect millions of girls in the developing world against cervical cancer.

The drugs giants have teamed up with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations which will distribute Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix and has procured the vaccines for around $4.50 a dose. GAVI notes that the same vaccines can cost more than $100 in developed countries and the previous lowest public sector price was $13 per dose.

The not-for-profit organisation said that of the 275,000 women in the world who die of cervical cancer every year, more than 85% are in low-income countries, where the incidence of HPV infection is higher and there is little access to screening and treatment. GAVI chief executive Seth Berkley  noted that "a vast health gap currently exists between girls in rich and poor countries. With [these] programmes we can begin to bridge that gap".

He added that by 2020 "we hope to reach more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries". GAVI will start the HPV vaccines project in Kenya this month followed by Ghana, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

MSF not impressed

The move has not been unanimously welcomed, however. Kate Elder, vaccine policy adviser at Medecins Sans Frontieres, said that "it's really disappointing that pharmaceutical companies haven't offered GAVI a much better deal". She added that "the price is unjustifiably high and will add to the already spiralling vaccination costs faced by low-income countries".

While the price is much lower than that paid by developed countries, it will still cost nearly $14 to fully protect a girl against HPV, as three doses are given, Ms Elder noted. She added that it is "a lost opportunity to negotiate for a truly low price".

GSK teams up with Save the Children

Meantime, GSK has entered into a "unique partnership" with the Save the Children charity "to save the lives of one million children" in Africa.

Among the key initiatives are the transformation of an antiseptic (chlorhexidine) used in GSK's Cordosyl mouthwash into a product to cleanse the umbilical cord stump of new-borns to prevent serious infection and the roll-out of a powder-form of an antibiotic in child friendly doses to help fight pneumonia.  Save the Children will be involved in helping GSK to develop medicines for children and have a seat on a new paediatric R&D board "to accelerate progress on innovative life-saving interventions for under- fives" and improve access in the developing world.

The partnership will initially run two programmes in Sub Saharan Africa – Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty said "I hope this partnership inspires GSK employees and sets a new standard for how companies and NGOs can work together towards a shared goal".

His counterpart at Save the Children, Justin Forsyth, said that in the past, his charity "may not have embarked on a collaboration with a pharmaceutical company like GSK. But we believe we can make huge gains for children if we harness the power of GSK's innovation, research and global reach".