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Vaccine could 'eradicate' cervical cancer

Public Health England reveals 86% decrease in HPV infections since introduction of vaccination

Mark Gould

Monday, 18 June 2018

There has been a significant fall in the number of cases of HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, following the introduction of a vaccine for young women, according to a new study.

HPV infections in women aged 16 to 21 fell by 86% between 2010 and 2016, a new study* by Public Health England (PHE) published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, shows.

Experts say these results suggest that the vaccine, introduced just 10 years ago, could eventually lead to a virtual eradication of the disease, which kills around 850 women a year.

The HPV vaccine is delivered through schools in two doses to girls from the age of 12 to their 18th birthday. It is not offered to women over the age of 18. PHE says that more than 80% of people aged 15-24 have now been vaccinated in the UK.

PHE's head of immunisation, Dr Mary Ramsay, said: "These results are very promising and mean that in years to come we can expect to see significant decreases in cervical cancer.

"The study also reminds us how important it is to keep vaccination rates high to reduce the spread of this preventable infection.

"I encourage all parents of girls aged 12 to 13 to make sure they take up the offer for this potentially life-saving vaccine."

And Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: "One day we hope to see cervical cancer become a disease of the past and it is only through high vaccination rates that we will get there. For women who have had the vaccine, it is important to remember it does not offer full protection against cervical cancer so attending cervical screening when invited is still important.”

In addition, the HPV vaccine is leading to a decline in genital warts, caused by low risk strains of HPV. The number of genital wart diagnoses in sexual health clinics between 2009 and 2017 fell in girls aged 15-17 by 89%, and in boys of the same age by 70% as a result of girls not infecting them.

Last year, the vaccine was extended to gay men aged 16-45, but is not currently offered to boys, although many other countries now offer HPV vaccination to both sexes. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers on vaccination policy, is currently evaluating whether vaccinating boys will be cost-effective. 

However, Professor Mark Lawler, of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queens's University Belfast, wants the vaccine to be extended to boys because the HPV virus is implicated in cancers in men such as anal, throat, head and neck.

"Head and neck cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the UK, so why can't we have a vaccine that protects boys as well as girls? Yes some boys are protected if there is a high rate of girls getting vaccinated, but in areas where there is a low take-up rate, then that immunity is not going to happen.

"Many countries now vaccinate both girls and boys, including Canada which has a similar health system to the UK," he told the BBC.

* Mesher D, Panwar K, Thomas SL, et al. The Impact of the National HPV Vaccination Program in England Using the Bivalent HPV Vaccine: Surveillance of Type-Specific HPV in Young Females, 2010–2016. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, jiy249, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiy249.

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