The NHS’s vaccination programme to prevent cervical cancer, begun in 2008, is now leading to a dramatic reduction in cervical cancer in women, with rates of disease down 87% in women in their 20s, who would have been given the vaccine at age 12 to 13.
The study, published in The Lancet and funded by Cancer Research UK, shows the potential for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in combination with cervical cancer screening to reduce cervical cancer to the point where almost no-one develops it and many lives will be saved. At present, across all age groups, around 850 women die from cervical cancer each year, according to Cancer Research UK.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said: “It’s a historic moment to see the first study showing that the HPV vaccine has and will continue to protect thousands of women from developing cervical cancer.”
The study, conducted by researchers based at King’s College London, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS) run by NHS Digital, looked at all cervical cancers diagnosed in England in women aged 20 to 64 between January 2006 and June 2019.
The researchers estimated that by June 2019, there were around 450 fewer cases of cervical cancer and 17,200 fewer cases of pre-cancerous changes to cells (known as CIN3) than expected in those vaccinated against HPV in England.
The amount of protection produced by the vaccine is dependent on the age the vaccine was given. The vaccine reduced cervical cancer incidence by 34% in those who received it aged 16 to 18, by 62% if aged 14 to 16 and by 87% in those who were vaccinated aged 12 to 13. The vaccine is most effective when given between the ages of 11 and 13 when someone is less likely to have been exposed to HPV.
The study was the first to focus on the UK vaccination programme and to analyse the effectiveness of Cervarix, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, the first HPV vaccine used in the UK programme. Cervarix is a bivalent vaccine protecting against infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for around 80% of cervical cancers.
In 2012, the UK’s HPV vaccination programme moved from Cervarix to Merck & Co’s Gardasil, a quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four types of HPV (6, 11, 16, 18). In the 2021/22 academic year, Gardasil will be replaced by Merck & Co’s Gardasil 9. This new vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, covering more than 95% of cervical cancers, and around 90% of genital warts.
In July 2018, the vaccination programme was extended to boys aged 12 to 13 years, as the vaccine also offers protection against other HPV-related cancers, including head and neck cancers, and anal and genital cancers. Since the 2019 to 2020 school year, both 12- to 13-year-old boys and girls have been eligible for the HPV vaccine.
Studies have shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for at least 10 years, although protection is expected to last for much longer.
Unfortunately, the pandemic disrupted the vaccination programme in 2020 and official figures show that only 54.4% of boys and 59.2% of girls in England got the HPV vaccine in 2019/20, compared with a rate of 88.0% in girls in the previous academic year. Experts are urging parents to make sure their children catch up on missed vaccinations, although 12 to 13 are the ideal ages, the beneficial effects are great for older children as well.
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