HPV vaccination programmes around the world are dramatically reducing the number of young women with potentially cancer-causing infections. New data from Public Health England reveals that rates of infection with the two most common causes of cervical cancer – the HPV16 and HPV18 viruses – have fallen sharply since the vaccine was introduced.
- 15% of sexually active young women had HPV infections in 2008
- 2% tested positive in 2014-2018
- 0% of a sample of 584 women tested positive in 2018 alone
Infections were found in less than 2% of women aged 16-18 between 2014 and 2018. In a sample of 584 women tested in 2018, no HPV16 or HPV18 infections were detected. 10 years earlier, before the vaccine programme was rolled out, over 15% of young sexually active women had these infections.
Experts believe this will translate into fewer women developing cervical cancer later in life. It adds to a growing body of evidence from around the world showing a drop in cervical disease thanks to the HPV vaccine. Some health campaigners believe the disease could be wiped out in a generation, if vaccination rates remain high.
10-year campaign has huge impact
The HPV vaccine was introduced for girls in England in 2008 and is now available to boys. It is used in more than 80 countries around the world.
‘Cervical cancer is currently the most common cancer in women under 35, killing about 850 women a year,’ said Marta Checchi, Senior Scientist, Public Health England (PHE). ‘HPV causes 99% of cervical cancers and types 16 and 18 are responsible for around 4 in 5 cases. The virus can also cause anal and penile cancer and some types of head and neck cancer.’
Dr Vanessa Saliba, Consultant Epidemiologist, PHE, said further impact of the HPV vaccination programme will become visible in the years to come. ‘With millions of young women protected by HPV vaccination, we expect to see big reductions in cervical cancer in years to come and the introduction of the boys’ programme will accelerate this progress,’ she said. ‘I encourage parents of all eligible girls and boys to ensure they take up this potentially life-saving vaccine when offered.’
Maintaining high vaccine uptake
HPV vaccination rates are high in the UK, with most girls having two doses for free through a schools-based immunisation programme. However, several countries have seen significant falls in HPV vaccine uptake due to the spread of false online stories about the jab.
The latest PHE statistics show that 83.9% of year 9 girls had received both doses in 2018 to 2019. Eleven million doses of the vaccine have been given to young women in England, meaning over 80% of women aged 15 to 24 are protected.
Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said maintaining high vaccine uptake is key to achieving the full potential of immunisation programmes. ‘It is fantastic to see the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine among young women, hopefully this will lead to significant reductions in cervical cancer diagnoses,’ he said. ‘Ensuring uptake remains high must remain a priority and this new data will hopefully encourage such action.’ He added that cervical screening remains an important component of the overall effort to reduce cervical cancer deaths.
Read: ‘Thank you, Laura’ – the story of a young woman in Ireland who became a vocal advocate of HPV vaccine before her untimely death from cervical cancer in 2019