The recent large-scale vaccination of young Australian girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV) has seen a significant cut in infections that can cause cervical cancer later in life, new research has revealed.
In the past eight years, the number of Australian women who contracted HPV fell by 92%.
Precancerous cervical lesions also reduced by 70% for those under 20 years of age and by 50% in women aged 20 to 24.
"Our results provide strong evidence that HPV vaccination works to prevent cervical cancer in real-world settings as both HPV infections that cause most cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions are decreasing,” researcher Melanie Drolet said of the study, published in the Lancet Public Health journal on Thursday.
Beyond Australia, the new research study examined the health outcomes from 60 million people across 14 high-income nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Overall, the study found that countries that had administered the vaccine for more than five years witnessed a decrease of HPV infections by 83% among girls aged 15 to 19.
Precancerous cervical lesions were also cut by 51% among screened teenage girls.
HPV vaccination programmes have substantial impact in reducing human papillomavirus infections and precancerous cervical lesions: finding from meta-analysis following 60 million individuals in high-income countries for 8-9 years post girls-only vaccination https://t.co/XzjSERU8Xqpic.twitter.com/70ksXnwyar— The Lancet (@TheLancet) June 26, 2019
Australia first introduced a free national HPV vaccination program in 2007, which consisted of a three-dose vaccine course given to Australian girls aged 12 to 13 at school. The program was then expanded to include boys in 2013 — because they can be carriers of the virus.
In 2017, around 80% of girls across Australia had received the three-dose immunization by the time they turned 15.
Australia has one of the lowest cervical cancer mortality rates in the world, with around 250 women dying each year.
Last year, a separate report from the Cancer Council Australia, revealed that the success of the HPV vaccination program meant Australia was on track to be the first in the world to see cervical cancer labelled as a rare cancer and not a common disease. By 2038, rates of the cancer are expected to be so low that it will be "eliminated as a public health problem.”
"Australia remains a world leader in cervical cancer prevention, and as long as we maintain our strong immunization program and improve the reach of our cervical screening program to all women, we certainly hope to be one of the first countries to reach the elimination threshold," study co-author Julia Brotherton told the Sydney Morning Herald.
While cervical cancer rates are falling, Brotherton said the rate reduction was not equal across all Australian ethnicities.
Women from Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander population currently die from cervical cancer at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Research has revealed that while initial vaccine coverage is high, completing all the recommended vaccine doses is lower for young Indigenous girls.
There are also disparities between rates of cervical cancer screenings between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women.
"It is really critical that we keep our eye on equity,” Brotherton stated. “We need to make sure the vaccine is reaching all girls and boys, and that screening is acceptable and easy to access for all women.”