Each year in the UK, around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and around 220,000 women are told they may have some form of cervical abnormality. Cervical cancer is caused by a very common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV through contact with someone who already has the virus. Most people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, but may never know they have been infected. Like other viral infections, such as a cold, HPV is usually cleared by the body's immune system without the need for other treatment. We do not know why a small percentage of people do not clear the infection, which can remain 'dormant' (inactive) in their bodies sometimes for many years  .
There are around 13 high-risk types of HPV that are responsible for almost all cervical cancers . Within the high-risk group, types 16 and 18 are the most prevalent and are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers . An HPV infection can cause changes to the cells of the cervix, creating abnormalities. Once these abnormalities become severe they can develop into cancer, which is why cervical screening and HPV vaccination are important in helping to prevent cervical cancer.
There are currently two HPV vaccines that provide protection against the two high-risk types of HPV (types 16 and 18) that cause 70% of all cervical cancers. One of the vaccines is also designed to provide protection against genital warts, which are caused by low-risk types of HPV. Low-risk types of HPV do not cause cervical cancer.
Research indicates that the HPV vaccine could prevent two thirds of cervical cancers in women under the age of 30 years old by 2025, but only if uptake of the HPV vaccination is at 80% . To date, the UK has achieved this level each year in the national HPV immunisation programme .
If you are a health care professional, please visit our health care professional information section where you will find a wide range of content, best practice guidelines, relevant links for you and your patients, and resources and ways that we can support you. You can also sign up for our quarterly health care professional e-newsletter.
Would you like to get involved with our work by helping us develop and improve our information and services? Visit the pages on our patient feedback group, Jo’s Voices, to see how to get involved.
- Cancer Research UK, 2014. Cervical cancer risk factors. www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/cervix/riskfactors/ Accessed: 19.05.2015.
- Muñoz N et al., 2009. Persistence of HPV infection and risk of high-grade cervical intraepithelial neoplasia in a cohort of Colombian women. British Journal of Cancer 100, 1184–1190.
- Moscicki AB et al., 1998. The natural history of human papillomavirus infection as measured by repeat DNA testing in adolescent and young women. Journal of Pediatrics 132, 277–284.
- Li N et al., 2011. Human papillomavirus type distribution in 30,848 invasive cervical cancer worldwide: variation by geographical region, histological type and year of publication. International Journal of Cancer 128, 927–935.
- Bosch FX et al., 2008. Epidemiology and natural history of human papillomavirus infections and type-specific implications in cervical neoplasia. Vaccine 26 (Suppl. 10), K1–K16.
- Cuzick J et al., 2010. Predicted impact of vaccination against human papillomavirus 16/18 on cancer incidence and cervical abnormalities in women aged 20–29 in the UK. British Journal of Cancer 102, 933–939.
- Public Health England. Annual HPV vaccine coverage in England: 2013–2014. www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381757/Annual_DataTable_2013_14_final_27_11_14 Accessed: 19.05.2015.