New screening tests and effective vaccines from Merck & Co and GlaxoSmithKline make tackling cervical cancer in poor countries a real possibility for the first time, researchers.

Experts who presented their findings at a conference in Geneva said the vaccines against the disease could be cost effective but subsidies or new prices would be needed for developing countries to afford the medicines. "Efforts are needed now to adapt the current price of the vaccines so they meet what individual countries can afford," Francesco Xavier Bosch of the Catalan Institute of Oncology in Barcelona told the World Cancer Congress. "The solution may be tiered pricing according to gross national income per capita and according to the scale of country efforts."

Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women and is caused by the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus. Each year 500,000 women are diagnosed with the disease and about 300,000 die from it, mostly in the developing world.

Merck's Gardasil and Glaxo's Cervarix are vaccines that protect people against certain strains of the virus but the $360 costs needed for the three shots for full vaccination is too much for poor countries to afford, the experts said.

They determined that in the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for more than half of the world's cervical cancer cases, vaccination would be cost-effective at $10-$25 per vaccinated girl.

For Latin America and the Caribbean the amount would have to be less than $25 per vaccinated girl to be cost effective, the researchers said. Future studies will examine Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The drug companies have said in the past they would cut the cost for developing nations substantially but have stopped short of saying they would make the treatments not-for-profit.

New screening techniques are also showing promise in small studies as viable lower cost — and potentially more effective — alternatives to pap smears, the experts said. One new method called visual inspection with acetic acid involves painting the cervix with vinegar and is a cheap, attractive option because it appears effective in detecting pre-cancerous lesions, requires only one visit and is a treatment nurses can perform easily.