Cervical cancer is the second biggest cause of female cancer worldwide.
It is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that every year approximately 500,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 300,000 women die from the disease.
Experts predict that by 2030, cervical cancer will kill over 474,000 women per year. According to these projections, over 95% of deaths are expected to be in low- and middle-income countries.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is implicated in virtually all cases of cervical cancer.
HPV infections are very common, difficult to avoid and primarily spread through sexual activity, including skin to skin contact.
The most effective way of tackling cervical cancer is through prevention: immunisation and cervical screening (Pap smear). It has been estimated by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health that alongside regular screening, vaccination could reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by up to 94% (compared to no intervention).
Indeed, the three licensed HPV vaccines have been proven effective mainly against the two strains of the virus responsible for around 70% of cervical cancers worldwide. Because not all types of cancer causing HPV are covered by the vaccines, women are still advised to attend regular cervical screening where available.
Immunisation programmes are usually targeted at pre-adolescent girls as it aims to protect them before their first sexual encounter.
Screening remains particularly important because most women do not experience symptoms in the early phase of the infection, yet the disease becomes much harder to treat if only diagnosed at an advanced stage.
Watch: cervical cancer – one woman’s story