In 2018, there were an estimated 570,000 new cases of cervical cancer worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) — with 90% of cervical cancer deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries.
In Britain, meanwhile, cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women under 35.
Now, a study from a team of researchers at Scottish universities has shown that the universal roll-out of the HPV vaccine has prompted a “dramatic” reduction in cervical cancer disease later in life.
In fact, the vaccine has “exceeded expectations”, according to the study published on Thursday in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) — nearly wiping out cases of cervical pre-cancer in young women.
“This is a veritable triumph for medicine,” wrote Tim Palmer, from the University of Edinburgh and clinical lead for cervical screening in Scotland, in the BMJ.
Absolutely stunning. Over 10 years, the HPV vaccine has caused a 90% fall in rates of pre-cancerous cells in young women.— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) April 4, 2019
Cervical cancer is a horrible disease. Vaccines are life-saving ❤️ https://t.co/h5AOX3MFhS
The HPV immunisation programme was introduced in Britain back in 2009, with schoolgirls aged 12 or 13 routinely getting the vaccine. Girls can get the vaccination for free on the NHS up until their 18th birthdays — with about 90% of girls in Scotland reportedly getting the vaccine.
Human papilomavirus (HPV) is a group of common viruses that are sexually transmitted — with some types being linked to cervical cancer.
It was originally thought that the vaccine would eliminate two types of HPV — which combined cause about 80% of pre-cancerous conditions.
The Scottish study, however, has now shown that it actually eliminates a further three types as well, according to the BBC — accounting for about 90% of cervical pre-cancer in Scotland.
A team of researchers from Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow Caledonian universities analysed the vaccination and screening records for 140,000 women in Scotland, born between 1988 and 1996 for the study. The women had all had their first cervical screen between 2008 and 2016, at the age of 20.
Dr Kevin Pollock, from Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “The main message is that the vaccine works. As long as the high uptake continues, the virus has got nowhere to go and it is being eliminated.”
“We assessed 140,000 women in this study and because we can link status of vaccination to the disease its impact is indisputable,” he added.
And Palmer said: "One of the implications of this work is that considerably fewer women will have to live with the physical and psychological implications, including pregnancy loss, or colposcopy and treatment.”
Stunning results from Scotland published in @bmj_latest cervical precancer almost eradicated in women aged 20 thanks to HPV vaccine. Congratulations @mecruickshank and colleagues pic.twitter.com/zG3qcujfcr— Peter Sasieni (@petersasieni) April 4, 2019
Globally, millions of doses of HPV vaccine have been given to women and, increasingly, men, Palmer said. He added that nowhere, including in the Scottish study, had any serious side-effects been demonstrably linked to the vaccine.
He described the findings as “remarkable news,” and said that immunisation “offers the only feasible solution to preventing a cancer the cause of which is well established … in those areas of the world where the burden of the disease is greatest. It is also the most cost effective method in developed countries.”
Interestingly, the study also noted a reduction in disease among unvaccinated women and men — indicating that mass vaccination prompts an interruption of HPV transmission nationwide.
Joe FitzPatrick, Scotland’s public health minister, reportedly said that plans are also in place to “build on this success” by extending the HPV vaccine programme to boys later this year.
The findings in Scotland reflect further research published in Lancet Oncology in February, that claimed scaling up HPV vaccinations and cervical screening programmes could lead to the global elimination of the cancer in 181 countries between 2020 and 2099.
The report found that “widespread coverage of both HPV vaccination and cervical screening from 2020 onwards has the potential to avert up to 13.4 million cervical cancer cases by 2069, and could achieve cervical cancer incidence of around four per 100,000 women per year or less.”
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Robert Music, also described the findings of the research as being “highly exciting.”
He added that the findings “clearly demonstrate the impact of the HPV vaccine in protecting the cervical health of future generations.”
Global Citizen Prize at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Dec. 13 is the first major event in our 2020 campaign, Global Goal Live: The Possible Dream. The year-long campaign will focus on three crucial areas: the climate crisis, gender equality, and human capital — empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty through access to quality education, nutritious food, and universal health systems. Vaccinations are one of the most effective ways to ensure good health and end preventable deaths, in line with the UN’s Global Goal 3 for health and wellbeing.
Next year will be vital for global health efforts, with the UK set to continue its world-leading efforts on health by hosting a major global conference on vaccines — a replenishment moment for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi’s efforts over the past two decades have already seen more than 700 million children vaccinated, and 10 million lives saved as a result. You can join the movement to end extreme poverty and ensure that everyone has access to vaccines by taking action with us here.