Turkish women hope to get free HPV vaccine after landmark lawsuit

When Turkish student Yagmur Varkal learned she had to pay for a vaccine that would protect her against cervical cancer, she was furious. The health authorities took to court to get their money back, achieving a historic victory.

Since then, other Turkish women have taken legal action to demand free access to human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. According to the World Health Organization, this is already provided to women and girls in more than 100 countries.

Activists in Turkey hope the court ruling in Ankara will set a precedent and pave the way for universal access to Turkish women. “We are very pleased with the outcome. ‘The legitimacy of our case continues,’” Farkal says. The 24-year-old has been supported in her legal battle by Children and Women First.

Cancer prevention

“But it doesn’t stop here, our main goal is to make sure the vaccine is available to all girls and boys,” Farkal explains.

“But it doesn’t stop here, our main goal is to make sure the vaccine is available to all girls and boys.”

The Turkish Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

HPV, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, usually causes no symptoms and goes away on its own. But the virus can cause cervical cancer in transgender women and men, as well as throat and penis cancer.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide, claiming about 1,250 lives in Turkey each year.

Studies have shown that vaccinating girls against HPV can reduce the number of cervical cancer cases by about 90%. This vision has led to more and more countries offering the vaccine for free. This usually happens to girls from 9 to 14 years old, which guarantees the greatest effectiveness.

Cheap lira, expensive vaccine

But Turkey, with a population of more than 84 million, did not include the HPV vaccine in the list of free vaccines.

Due to the economic distress in the country, inflation is currently at its highest level in twenty years. The Turkish lira has halved against the dollar in the past year. Consequently, medical costs are becoming less expensive for many Turks.

Medical costs are becoming less expensive for many Turks.

At 2,372 lira (€148) – more than half the minimum monthly wage after the currency collapse – the vaccine is too expensive for most Turkish girls and women.

conservative values

Access to HPV vaccines varies by region. It is provided by default in 37 out of 53 countries in the European region as defined by the World Health Organization, including Turkey.

Countries such as Greece or Armenia will cover all vaccination costs, while residents of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Iran will have to pay for their vaccinations, according to data from the HPV Information Center. The center is co-led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Candan Yusir, a Turkish doctor and parliamentarian, estimates that less than 1 percent of Turkish women and girls have been vaccinated against HPV.

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This ratio means that (vaccination) does not exist de facto. “It is unacceptable to ignore these deaths when thousands of lives can be saved,” Yasser said.

Conservative social values ​​are a hindrance to expanding access to the punch in Turkey. Activists say that public conversations about sex or women’s health are often considered taboo.

Zeynep, a 36-year-old woman from Istanbul, says she felt “anger, fear and upset” after being infected with HPV. According to her, there is a social stigma associated with sexually transmitted diseases.

“Because I come from a conservative family, I blame myself,” said Zainab, who prefers not to be called by her real name. But after talking to friends, Zainab realized that several of them had also contracted the virus.

group claim

Farkal took her case in court on March 10 against the government-run Social Security Corporation, which funds health care and therefore vaccines as well. Campaign activists say this sets an important precedent that could eventually lead to widespread access to an HPV vaccine.

“We only have one goal left: politicians should make the decision to include HPV vaccines in the national vaccination programme.”

More than 25 women have filed a class action lawsuit in Turkish courts to compensate them (A lawsuit with several plaintiffs, ed.† The cause is supported by Children and Women First, a women’s rights organization that also partners with pharmacists who push for free vaccination.

“We only have one goal left: Politicians must make the decision to include HPV vaccines in the national vaccination programme,” said Jim Kilink, a pharmacist and campaign leader.

Thus Nilda, of Children and Women First, says that women will still be more likely to develop cancer until the vaccine is offered free of charge. “Our efforts serve the right to life,” she says.

This article originally appeared with the IPS partner Thomson Reuters Foundation

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