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Behind the headlines: HPV vaccine eliminating cervical cancer

Posted on: Friday, 5th November 2021 by Imogen Pinnell, Health Information Manager

Our vision is that one day cervical cancer will be a thing of the past. Sometimes, it can feel as though that day is a long way down a winding, twisty road. But today it feels much closer. 

A study published in the Lancet journal this week provided us with something amazing: the first ever concrete proof that the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine prevents cervical cancer and therefore saves lives. The impact is of the vaccine is huge – the incidence of cervical cancer has reduced by 87% in women in their 20s. That is something to shout about. 

The news is undeniably positive but if you want to find out more about the HPV vaccine and what this story means, you’ve come to the right place! 

What did the study look at?

This study looked at the first HPV vaccine to be used in the UK between 2008 and 2012, which was called Cervarix. It protected against 2 types of HPV that, together, are thought to cause around 7 in 10 (70%) cervical cancers. The study was based in England, and it looked at women who were vaccinated in their early teens.

The aim was to understand the level of protection that HPV vaccine offered – in other words, whether it was preventing diagnoses of cervical cell changes and cervical cancer. 

What does this study mean in the real world?

Although we had data and modelling to know the HPV vaccine would offer a good level of protection against cervical cancer, this study shows that the vaccine exceeded expectations and that protection is even higher than we thought. 

The study estimates that in vaccinated women in their 20s there were:

  • about 450 fewer diagnoses of cervical cancer 
  • about 17,200 fewer diagnoses of high-grade cervical cell changes (CIN3).

This means, in short, that cervical cancer is now extremely rare in young women and we are much closer to wiping the illness out.

What more do we need to find out?

This study looked at the impact of the HPV vaccine over an 11 year period. That means we know the protection from the vaccine lasts for at least that long. In the future, more studies will be needed to make sure the vaccine is still offering protection after that point and to understand whether booster vaccines are necessary.

What does this news mean if you’ve not had the vaccine?

Of course, the main benefit of vaccines is felt by those who are vaccinated, although there is some herd protection. So, what about people who aren't vaccinated? Let’s dig a bit deeper: 

If you are over 25 

You have the option to pay privately for the HPV vaccine. Often, clinics and pharmacies will offer this vaccine up to age 45. There may be a benefit to having it at this age, although it’s important to know that research suggests it becomes less effective as we get older. However, if you haven’t had the vaccine, cervical screening (a smear test) remains your best protection against cervical cancer and a very important test. 

If you are under 25

You should have received the jab at school. If you (or your child) were offered the vaccine at school, but you missed it because of Covid or another reason, you can get the jab from your GP.  

Cervical screening is still really important for you if you’re vaccinated. The HPV vaccine gives a very high degree of protection but it’s not 100%, so make sure you have all the information you need about the test when you’re invited.  

Other groups

Men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who are HIV positive and sex workers may also be able to have the HPV vaccine for free. We have more specific information for you on this page, but you can also speak to your GP about it.  

What’s next for the HPV vaccine? 

In schools, we now use a better vaccine called Gardasil, which also protects against some types of HPV which cause genital warts. Since September 2019, the HPV vaccine has been extended to boys as well as girls, which means even more people will be protected.

And, because science is the gift that keeps on giving, we will soon see a new vaccine used in the HPV vaccination programme across the UK – Gardasil 9 which protects against (you guessed it) 9 types of HPV. 

No vaccine is 100% effective, but this offers a very high degree of protection against types of HPV that can cause changes to the cells in your cervix which, if not monitored or treated, can develop into cervical cancer. 

Still got questions? Here's how you can ask them >