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Written on 8th November 2021 by

Researchers at Kings College London have found that the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine is reducing cases of cervical cancer in England by 87%.

The study, reported in The Lancet, compared the rate of cervical cancer in women in their 20s who had received the HPV vaccination at the age of 12 or 13, after it was introduced in schools in 2008, with the rate amongst unvaccinated women. They found a 62% reduction amongst those who had been vaccinated between the ages of 14 and 16, and a 34% reduction amongst those who were 16 to 18 when they received their HPV vaccination. The study also showed that CIN3 pre-cancerous growths were reduced by 97% for those vaccinated at 12 to 13, and by  39% for those vaccinated from age 16 to 18.

The researchers estimated that between 2006 and 2019 the HPV vaccine had resulted in 448 fewer cervical cancers and 17,235 fewer cases of CIN3 (pre-cancer).  

The researchers acknowledged that the HPV vaccination programme has only run for 13 years, meaning that the women are still very young to have had a cervical cancer diagnosis even if unvaccinated.  However, they noted the prevalence of two high risk HPV strains, Type 16 and 18, in women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer before the age of 30.

They are quoted as saying, "We have shown that HPV vaccination with high coverage in 12 to 13-year-old girls has almost eliminated cervical cancer and cervical precancer up to age 25 (the extent of the observed data)."

 

What is HPV and why is HPV vaccination leading to fewer cases of cervical cancer?

HPV or human papillomavirus is the name given to a group of viruses that infect the skin and mucous membranes of the body, including the inside of the mouth and throat, the vagina, vulva, cervix and anus. There are over 200 types of HPV. Low-risk HPV can cause minor conditions, like warts. However, 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are caused by high-risk types of HPV. 

HPV infection is very common, affecting a large proportion of the population. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact or through any form of (or even a first) sexual contact. HPV infection has no symptoms, so most HPV infected people are unaware that they have it. The bodies of those with strong immune systems may naturally clear themselves of HPV infection within one to two years. For others, HPV will remain undetected in the body for many years.

For most people, HPV is harmless, but if the body does not clear the infection, some types of high-risk HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. If undetected or left untreated, over time these pre-cancerous cells may lead to cervical cancer.  In England, Scotland and Wales cervical screening (smear tests) includes testing for high-risk HPV. If the smear test reveals changes to the cells or high-risk HPV, the patient may be recalled for further examination and treatment if needed. Over the past 30 years cervical screening has more than halved illness and death from cervical cancer in countries where formal screening programmes have been introduced.  

As high-risk HPV infection is now known to cause most cervical cancers, HPV vaccination has become an effective way to reduce the number of people who develop HPV-related cervical cancers as well as other HPV-related conditions.  HPV vaccination is a preventative measure, which helps protect individuals from becoming infected with HPV, as well as reducing the number of people who go on to develop cervical cancer. Vaccination cannot clear HPV virus from someone who has already been infected.  That’s why the UK’s HPV vaccination programme offers the vaccine to girls and boys in school at an age before they become sexually active. Since 2008, HPV vaccine has been offered to girls between the age of 11 and 13. Since 2019, HPV vaccination has also been offered to boys as an additional measure to reduce the spread of HPV infection to girls.  HPV vaccinations are given by two or three injections over several months to boost the immune system and protect from HPV infection. Not all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, so HPV vaccination does not remove the need for cervical screening.

In 2019, ten years after free HPV vaccines were first introduced for teenage girls, Public Health England reported an 86% reduction in 16 to 21-year-old women infected with the two high-risk types of HPV thought to be the biggest cause of cervical cancer. The latest study from King’s College London clearly demonstrates the continued lifesaving effect that HPV vaccines are having on reducing the devastating harm caused by cervical cancer.

The good news is that more than 100 countries around the world are now using HPV vaccination to work towards the  World Health Organization’s (WHO) aim to eliminate cervical cancer.  

If you have suffered severe injury as a result of delayed diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer, and want to find out more about making a claim, you can talk to one of our solicitors, free and confidentially, by contacting us here.