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It’s back-to-school time and that means thousands of children, both boys and girls (perhaps your own children) may be offered the HPV vaccine at school. You may have seen that the vaccine has been hitting the news recently and you probably have lots of questions about it. This blog can help!
On 27th June, research was published in the Lancet that showed that the HPV vaccine has brought down rates of HPV and cervical cell changes in 14 countries. This was followed by the announcement that the HPV vaccine will be offered to boys as well as girls from September.
This is, of course, fantastic news! In the UK, we are lucky to have such an effective prevention programme that can reduce the number of people getting a HPV related cancer and further means that the elimination of cervical cancer is firmly on the horizon.
We know that cervical cancer can become a thing of the past and advances in preventative measures are bringing us closer to making that a reality. However, despite these recent successes, we must be careful not to get complacent. We still have a long way to go.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a really common virus that 80% of us, regardless of your gender, will have in our life-time. There are over 200 types of HPV and 13 high-risk types are linked to cancers including cervical, penile, anal, head and neck, vaginal and vulval. But don’t panic! In most cases our immune system will clear HPV without us even knowing we had it.
However, in some cases certain types of high-risk HPV can go on to cause cancer. HPV 16 and 18 can cause around 70% of cervical cancers, but we’re very fortunate in the UK to have access to the HPV vaccine that protects against those types, and we have already seen very positive results.
The HPV vaccine was introduced in 2008 and was offered to girls aged 12 to 13 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 11 to 13 in Scotland and, as of 2019, is offered to boys too. Now, in 2019, those who received the vaccine are coming into the screening programme and we’ve already seen an 89% decline in cervical cell changes.
While vaccination uptake in the UK is currently high at over 80% across all four countries, if uptake were to fall to 40%, incidence of cervical cancer in 25 to 44 year olds would increase by 38%. The roll-out of the HPV vaccine to boys is a great step to ensuring that the most people possible are protected but we now need to ensure that as many young people as possible are getting vaccinated.
There is wide variation in uptake across the UK, ranging from 94.3% in North Yorkshire to 65.3% in Hammersmith and Fulham. We must make it our priority to focus on communities and areas where vaccine uptake is below the national average. So how can we make sure uptake remains high?
If we want to see vaccine uptake remain high in the UK, we must tackle the spread of misinformation by anti-vaxxers. Many pieces of research have shown that the vaccine is safe and very effective. However, anti-vaccination sentiment is on the rise in many countries. According to the World Health Organization, it presents a major threat to public health. Vaccine hesitancy has led to confidence in the HPV vaccine, in some countries, being negatively affected.
We’ve seen this in Japan, where concerns about side effects from the vaccine caused a rapid decline in the uptake of the vaccine. Vocal anti-vaxxer social media accounts have spread misinformation about the vaccine including unfounded claims that the vaccine leads to major health complications. This resulted in vaccine uptake dropping from 70% in 2013 to 1% today[i]. The low vaccine uptake, along with low screening attendance, has caused cervical cancer diagnoses to rise by 9.6% in ten years in the country[ii]. And that’s devastating,
By lobbying governments to legislate against anti-vaccination misinformation, putting pressure on social media organisations or even just by challenging misinformation on social media, we can help stop anti-vaxxer misinformation from spreading.
Another way that we can combat this is through education. We have lesson plans and resources that teachers can use to arm young people with reliable information in order to make informed decisions about their health.
While it’s very exciting that the HPV vaccine brings us closer to a world without cervical cancer, it’s important to remember that the vaccine does not offer complete protection. That’s why cervical screening (a smear test) still has an important role to play in preventing cervical cancer.
There are still thousands of women who have had or are currently living with cervical cancer. For some, the vaccine was not an option. Some of these women will have had the vaccine, and it may be especially difficult for them to come to terms with their diagnosis. It’s important that we bear these women in mind when we talk about the HPV vaccine.
Women are still being diagnosed with cervical cancer every day, so here at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust we will continue to offer support and call for the best and most effective treatment, as well as ensuring that as many people know the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine as possible, until the day that this cancer has been eliminated.
We still have a long way to go until cervical cancer is a thing of the past, but by raising awareness of the importance of cervical cancer prevention we can get closer to making that hope a reality.