HPV Vaccine Has Nearly Eliminated Related Cancers in England

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HPV – the human papillomavirus – is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection among sexually active people. One of the reasons it’s so transmitted is that most people show few or no symptoms and there’s not even a test for men, so there’s often no way to be warned that you might have it, much less be transmitting it. There are dozens of strains, most of which are virtually harmless.

But two strains, HPV16 and HPV18, are not at all harmless. In fact, those two strains alone cause 70% of HPV-related cancers.

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For the last decade there has been a vaccine available for teenagers, male and female, that targets HPV16 and HPV18 (as well as other higher-risk strains of the virus), but it (like other vaccines) has faced hesitancy from parents.

England, though, began a mass vaccination program in schools, and the results have been staggering.

The latest statistics from Public Health England suggest there has been a massive slowdown of new infections of HPV among sexually active young women.

Researchers used a group of 584 women between the ages of 16 to 18, and found that none of them were infected – compared to a rate of around 15% infection ten years ago, when the program began.

Dr. Vanessa Saliba, the consultant epidemiologist on the project, says the team also believes the report indicates a wider decline of the virus in England overall.

“This is clear evidence of the success of our immunisation programme, which continues to achieve high coverage. 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.”

Even though the vaccine targets the highest-risk strains, researchers also say there’s some evidence suggesting that other types of the virus have also declined.

England’s vaccination rates since the program began have soared to nearly 84%. Scotland has implemented a similar program with equally positive results, and Australia may well be the first country to eliminate HPV-related cervical cancer over the next 20 years.

There has been at least one study to suggest that even if HPV could be curbed, cervical cancer would remain a threat, since HPV is not the only known contributor to the disease, but scientists are quick to cast a shadow over those results.

Jonathan Ball, a molecular biology professor at the University of Nottingham, admits that the authors do “raise some important points highlighting that HPV vaccination isn’t the absolute panacea for cervical cancer prevention,” but also reminds us that “undoubtedly the current HPV vaccines are effective at preventing infection with the types of virus known to cause cervical and other cancers.”

It all boils down to this: we have a vaccine that has a 70% (or maybe better, if we can get the rates up high enough) chance of preventing your child from contracting at least one type of cancer, and we know that it works.

So, even if you can’t protect them from everything, you can protect them from this one thing, and isn’t that something to celebrate?

It’s definitely something to do. 

I mean, if you ask me.