British researchers have announced that the vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, will reduce cervical cancer cases by almost 90% according to the first real data.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by viruses, and the hope is that vaccination could almost completely eradicate the disease.
The researchers said the success meant those who were vaccinated may also need much fewer cervical swabs.
Girls will be offered the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13, depending on where they live in the UK. The vaccine has also been offered to boys since 2019.
The study, published in the Lancet, looked at what happened after the vaccine was introduced to girls in England in 2008.
These students are now adults in their twenties. The study showed a reduction in both precancerous growths and an 87% reduction in cervical cancer.
“The impact has been enormous,” said Prof. Peter Sasieni, one of the researchers at King’s College London.
The cuts were less dramatic when older teenagers were vaccinated as part of a catch-up campaign.
This is because fewer older teenagers have chosen to have the vaccine and, ideally, it must be given before becoming sexually active.
Overall, the study estimates that the HPV program prevented around 450 cancers and 17,200 precancerous diseases.
Prof. Sasieni says this is “just the tip of the iceberg” as those vaccinated are still young to develop cancer, so the number will only increase over time.
Currently, women are asked to have a smear test every three to five years to check for cervical cancer.
But Prof. Sasieni says that after these results there has to be a rethink “in any case”. He told me, “It should be a wake-up call for policy makers, women will read this and think, ‘Why should I go to the screening?’
“I wish we could come back with a new screening program two or three times in a lifetime and continue to screen unvaccinated women.”
This is not the last word on HPV vaccination. There are still questions about how long the protection lasts and whether a midlife booster is needed.
There are also more than 100 types of human papillomavirus. The UK started using a vaccine that protected against two of them and is about to launch a vaccine that protects against nine viruses, including the main causes of genital warts.
The carcinogenic versions lead to dangerous changes in the DNA of infected cells, turning them into cancer.
This can happen in any infected tissue. The viruses can be spread through vaginal, oral, and anal sex, and are also associated with anus, penis, and some head and neck cancers.
However, 99% of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomaviruses. Because of this, more than 100 countries have started using the vaccine as part of the World Health Organization’s plans to come close to eradicating cervical cancer.
Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist for the UK Health Authority, said the results were “remarkable” and showed that the vaccine “saves lives by drastically reducing cervical cancer rates in women”.
Michelle Mitchell, Managing Director of Cancer Research UK, said, “It is a historic moment to see the first study to show that the HPV vaccine protects and will protect thousands of women from cervical cancer.”