New statistics from Public Health England (PHE) have shown that the implementation of the HPV vaccination among young woman (and school-age boys) has significantly reduced cancer-causing strains of the virus to spread. As a result, it's expected cervical cancer incidences will also drop in years to come.
If you've heard the term 'HPV' before but aren't particularly clear on exactly what it is, here's what you need to know: HPV (human papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted infection which will affect around 80% of people in their lifetime. Most people won't know they've even got HPV, as usually the body can fight off the infection by itself, but there are certain strains of the virus that are known to cause cervical cancer in women.
Two of those strains are HPV16 and 18. PHE's new data indicates that infection rates are currently below 2% for these particular strains in 16-to-18-year-old women. What's more, in one specific sample of 584 young women, who were tested in 2018, no HPV16 or 18 infections were detected. That's compared to 2008, when over 15% of young sexually active women were found to have these virus strains.
HPV causes 99% of cervical cancers, and types 16 and 18 are known to be responsible for around four in every five cases, which is why these figures are such a big deal. If instances of these virus strains are low, in turn, instances of cervical cancer will also drop.
The UK first introduced a HPV vaccination programme to young women between the ages of 12 and 18 in 2008, and the impact of this is finally being measured. In September 2019, the vaccination programme was extended to school-age boys for the first time, and it's hoped this will reduce the spread of HPV (and its resulting cancers, including cervical, anal, penile, and some types of head and neck cancer).
A forecast by the University of Warwick estimates that, by 2058, the HPV vaccine will prevent around 65,000 HPV-related cervical cancers and 50,000 other HPV-related cancers. Cervical cancer is currently the most common cancer in women under 35, killing about 850 women a year.
These new Public Health England statistics follow research from Scotland last year, which showed last year that the implementation of the HPV vaccination for young woman had already led to a dramatic drop in cervical disease. The findings indicated that cervical cancer could be more-or-less wiped out in the UK in years to come as a result of the jabs.
A study carried out by the University of Edinburgh, published in the British Medical Journal in April 2019, compared cervical screening (smear test) results from Scottish women born prior to vaccination-age with the smear test results of Scottish women who underwent the HPV jab at school.
According to the study's findings, the younger women who had been vaccinated showed an 89% reduction in instances of abnormal cells and cervical lesions in smear tests compared to the women who had not been vaccinated. The results indicated that the vaccination is effectively stopping the spread of HPV, which is in turn, reducing the growth of pre-cancerous cells in young women.
The HPV jab is spread across all of the UK, and while it's not mandatory, uptake is on average quite high nationwide.
Speaking last year, Robert Music, Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust described the Scottish findings as "highly exciting", saying they "clearly demonstrate the impact of the HPV vaccine in protecting the cervical health of future generations.
"We are lucky to have such an effective prevention programme which means the elimination of cervical cancer is firmly on the horizon. Focusing on communities and areas where take up is below the national average should be a priority."
If young men and women continue to have the HPV vaccination, we look forward to a future where cases of cervical cancer become more and more rare.
You can find the early signs of cervical cancer here.
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