The HPV virus is spread through sexual contact with an infected person, and has for some time been linked with an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Although the majority of cases of the viral infection clears on their own, when persistent, it can lead to abnormal cervical cells or “precancer”. If left untreated this can progress to a cancer diagnosis.  Dr. Marc Arbyn of the Unit of Cancer Epidemiology at the Belgian Cancer Centre in Brussels noted: that over half a million new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year. “Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women in the world.”

Some strains of the virus pose a higher risk than others. It’s currently estimated that the HPV16 and HVP18 strains account for nearly three quarters of cervical cancer cases globally, and the commonly used vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are designed to protect against these strains. Despite reports that these vaccines pose risks and have side effects, a new study has shown that when used in women between the age of 15 and 26, it’s highly effective at protecting against cancer and comes with very few risks.

According to the WHO guidelines, both girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 14 should be vaccinated against HPV. In different countries around the world there are different guidelines, however, in most countries only girls are vaccinated and therefore the study only looked at the vaccines effectiveness in female patients. The women, who had tested negative for HPV prior to be being vaccinated, were tracked for eight years and the researchers looked at whether they developed pre-cancer cells.

The women who were vaccinated between the ages of 15 and 25 showed a substantial reduction in their risk of developing pre-cancer cells. For every 10,000 women who hadn’t had the vaccination, 164 went on to develop HPV 16 or HPV 18 – either of which can develop into cancer. For those vaccinated at a young age, this fell to just two women per 10,000. In women who were vaccinated later, between 25 and 45, the risk was 145 per 10,000.

There have been claims recently that the vaccine can cause side effects including neurological problems and seizures, which has led to declining rates of take-up of the vaccine. However, the researchers found that there was “no increased incidence of serious adverse effects” in either of the vaccines testes. But, they did add that “evidence on rare potential harms … are difficult to capture”.

Helen Bedford, a professor at University College London’s Institute of Child Health, commented that the “HPV vaccine was introduced 10 years ago for 13- to 14-year-old girls to prevent infection with HPV, which can lead to cancer of the cervix.” She added: “This, together with early evidence of reduction in cervical cancer in Finland, confirms the groundbreaking value of this cancer-preventing vaccine. It also provides reassuring evidence of the safety of HPV vaccines.”

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