Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women around the world, affecting about 570,000 and killing more than 300,000 each year. Most cases are caused or at least triggered by human papillomavirus, or HPV.
The United Kingdom has been leading an HPV vaccination program since 2008, two years after a vaccine for cervical cancer first came onto the market. A new study out this week shows that the campaign has prevented thousands of cases of cervical cancer and precancerous conditions. Researchers examined UK cancer registry data from January 2006 to June 2019 and compared those who were vaccinated to those who were not—they found that by mid-2019, the vaccinated cohort had 450 fewer cases of cervical cancer and 17,200 fewer cases of pre-cancers than expected. The findings were published in The Lancet.
This new research is a landmark, the first to definitively illustrate the positive results of the vaccination campaign that began 13 years ago. Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive at Cancer Research UK, told The Guardian that “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.”
In the UK, girls are offered the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13, and since 2019 it has been made available to boys as well. (In the US, the CDC recommends the vaccine for all kids between the ages of 11 and 12.) Given that the vaccine can prevent HPV infection but can’t do anything if the virus is already in the body, as well as the fact that the virus is so widespread, the vaccination program aims to reach children well before they’re sexually active.
The study focused on women who received the vaccine as girls still in school. Now in their 20s, their rates of cervical cancer, and pre-cancerous conditions, are much lower than their unvaccinated peers. And the effect was more dramatic the younger they were when they got their shots.
“The impact has been huge,” Peter Sasieni, a co-author of the paper and cancer researcher at King’s College London, told the BBC. He added that these results are “just the tip of the iceberg”—the women observed are still young and not at high risk for cancer, as the years go by the benefits will compound.
Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that are both preventable and curable (when detected early). The WHO Director-General announced a global call for action to eliminate cervical cancer in 2018, and the World Health Assembly adopted a global strategy for cervical cancer elimination in 2020. This means that, by 2030, they want 90 percent of girls fully vaccinated against HPV by age 15 and 90 percent of women with cervical disease (meaning cancer and precancerous conditions) to be receiving treatment.
The study’s authors hope these nudge the UK population towards getting the vaccine. Co-author Kate Soldan from the UK Health Security Agency told the BBC, “we hope that these new results encourage uptake as the success of the vaccination program relies not only on the efficacy of the vaccine but also the proportion of the population vaccinated.”