Cervical cancer could be “eliminated” within decades, according to scientists – all thanks to the success of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination which has substantially reduced the number of infections and precancerous cervical lesions caused by the virus.
Infections caused by HPV are among the most common sexually transmitted diseases. Certain forms of the virus can lead to genital warts while others cause lesions that can develop into cancer of the mouth, throat, vagina, vulva, anus or penis, and particularly the cervix.
“HPV is found in almost 100% of cervical cancer cases,” said Mélanie Drolet, who conducted a study into rates of cancer in countries which have implemented vaccination programmes.
The NHS currently offers the first dose of the HPV vaccine to girls aged 12 and 13, with a second six to 12 months later. The programme was first rolled out in 2008.
Drolet’s research team from Laval University, in Canada, conducted a meta-analysis of 65 studies in 14 high-income countries – including the UK – that have set up HPV vaccine programmes in the past 10 years.
With data on 60 million people, the researchers compared the frequency of HPV infections, genital warts and precancerous cervical lesions before and after the programmes were launched.
Their analysis, published in The Lancet journal, showed that infections dropped by 83% among girls aged 13 to 19 years old and 66% among women aged 20 to 24.
For genital warts, the drop was 67% among 15- to 19-year-old girls, 54% for women aged 20 to 24, and 31% for those aged 25 to 29.
Precancerous cervical lesions also dropped by 51% among teens aged 15 to 19 years old and 31% among women aged 20 to 24.
The study revealed that vaccination of young women is also producing herd protection for young men. Genital warts among males have dropped 48% for those 15 to 19 years old and 32% for those aged 20 to 24.
“HPV vaccination is still too recent to directly measure its effects on cervical cancer as it can take decades to develop,” explained Drolet.
“However, our analyses show that vaccination is producing substantial reductions in the infections that cause cervical cancer and precancerous lesions.
“These reductions are a first sign that vaccination could eventually lead to the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem. We are now trying to determine when elimination could be achieved and which vaccination and screening programmes could help us achieve it faster.”