Cervical cancer cases are declining, and we can thank the HPV vaccine!
Each year, cervical cancer claims the lives of over 300,000 women. This disease affects women of all ages worldwide, often presenting without symptoms giving it the nickname “silent killer.” Thankfully, due to screening and HPV vaccines, diagnoses in the U.S. have declined over the past decade.
How Does the Vaccine Prevent Cervical Cancer?
Researchers state that human papillomaviruses, or HPV, cause 99% of cervical cancers. HPV is most commonly a sexually transmitted disease. In fact, most sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Some will be repeatedly infected. While nine out of 10 HPV infections go away by themselves in two years, others lead to cancer of the reproductive system, mainly cervical cancer. HPV also can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, and oropharyngeal cancer (throat, tongue, and tonsils).
As the HPV vaccine prevents future infections and cannot rid the body of the virus, it is best for children before becoming sexually active.
Where It All Started
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved an HPV vaccine called Gardasil, which initially protected against four strains of HPV. In 2014, Gardasil 9 was introduced, which protected against five additional strains – nine in total.
The developers of Gardasil, Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., changed the cervical cancer landscape and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives with their vaccine. In 2018, the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) awarded Lowy and Schiller the Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research. The Prize was awarded to them to recognize the team as ‘true heroes in the fight against cancer.
What Does Today’s Research Say?
There have been some extraordinary findings regarding the HPV vaccine this year. Most notably, Cancer Research U.K. announced that the HPV vaccine is cutting cases of cervical cancer by nearly 90%.
The study looked at what happened after the vaccine was introduced for girls in England in 2008. Those girls are now adults in their 20s. The study showed a reduction in pre-cancerous growths and an 87% reduction in cervical cancer. The reductions were less dramatic when older teenagers were immunized as part of a catch-up campaign. This is because fewer older teenagers decided to have the jab, and they may already have been sexually active.
Overall, the study estimated that the HPV program had prevented about 450 cancers and 17,200 pre-cancers.
That’s Not All…
At the 2021 International Papillomavirus Conference in Toronto, researchers were pleased to share that a recent study provided evidence that a single-dose HPV vaccine was highly effective.
This randomized controlled trial of 2,275 women in Kenya showed that a single dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was highly effective. The current standard for women is a three-dose regimen.
In the trial, women 15 to 20 years old were randomly assigned treatment and followed from December 2018 to June 2021:
- 760 received a bivalent vaccine that covered two strains of HPV (16/18), which represent 70% of cases;
- 758 received a nonavalent vaccine that covered seven strains of HPV (16/18/31/33/45/52/58), which represent 90% of cases;
- 757 received a vaccine that protects against meningococcal meningitis.
After 18 months, the bivalent vaccine was 97.5% effective against HPV 16/18, and the nonavalent vaccine was 97.5% effective against HPV 16/18. The nonavalent vaccine was 89% effective against the seven strains of HPV. Even if women tested positive for one strain of HPV, the vaccine protected them from other strains of the virus.
The majority of participants (57%) were between 15 and 17 years old, and most reported one lifetime sexual partner (61%). To be eligible, participants needed to be sexually active, have no more than five lifetime partners, be HIV-negative, and have no history of HPV vaccination.
WHO’s Day of Action for Cervical Cancer Elimination
On November 17, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global initiative to eliminate cervical cancer. One year later, on the same day, WHO introduced the Day of Action for Cervical Cancer Elimination.
This day aimed to raise awareness and mobilize action worldwide, focusing on the poorest countries often deprived of clinical screening facilities, HPV vaccines, and treatments.
In the past year, the HPV vaccine was introduced in seven countries – Cameroon, Cape Verde, El Salvador, Mauritania, Qatar, Sao Tome and Principe, and Tuvalu – bringing the total to 115.
Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
Two months have passed since the inaugural Day of Action for Cervical Cancer, but the silent killer has yet to fade from the limelight. January is recognized as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Experts encourage women (and men) to urge those around them to get vaccinated and screened where possible.
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