The HPV Vaccine has been hailed as a scientific triumph after reducing the rate of cervical cancer by 87% following its rollout in 2008.
An early study into the results showed that women who had the HPV (human papillomavirus) Vaccine aged 12 or 13 were significantly less likely to develop cervical cancer in their 20s.
As medical breakthroughs go, this is one for the history books, especially as HPV can lead to several other cancers, including vaginal, anal, vulval, and some head and neck cancers.
However, while we should celebrate this lifesaving innovation, all women must continue to recognise the importance of smear tests.
Let’s take a look at HPV, the vaccine, and the fight against cervical cancer.
What we’ll be deep diving into:
- What is HPV, and how is it linked to cervical cancer?
- The HPV Vaccine and why it’s given to young teens.
- How the vaccine fights cervical cancer.
- The continuing importance of smear tests.
What is the human papillomavirus (HPV)?
HPV is the collective name for a group of more than 100 viruses that are catchier than a Lizzo banger.
The NHS website explains that HPV viruses affect the skin and are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, most often through vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
You can also get infected if you share sex toys with a partner who has HPV.
Research shows that if you are a sexually active person, you’ll almost certainly come into contact with HPV during your lifetime.
What you need to know about types of HPV
The statistic that 8 out of 10 people who’ve had sex will get HPV is sobering.
However, not every type of HPV is oncogenic (i.e. cancer-causing).
Cancer is caused when HPV lingers in the body and turns normal cells into abnormal cells, which develop into cancer.
Non-oncogenic HPV leads to warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth or throat.
While you may not feel that an outbreak of genital warts is cause for popping corks, the low-risk, non-oncogenic HPV types are infinitely preferable.
Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in females in the UK.
How do I know if I’ve got HPV?
Here’s the real kicker – HPV can lie dormant in the body for years after infection.
This ‘dormancy period’ can last anywhere from a couple of years to decades.
That can provide quite a shock when you’ve been monogamous for a significant period of time and suddenly get an HPV diagnosis.
But you can contract the infection years earlier, and while HPV is dormant, it won’t be detected by a smear test.
HPV Vs Your Immune System
The good news is that the body is adept at dealing with HPV in many instances.
While there is no cure for HPV, your immune system is often able to clear up the infection itself.
It’s when the immune system can’t shift the infection alone that oncogenic cells can turn abnormal and pre-cancerous.
If they are detected in time, it is possible to remove them before they develop into cancer.
The non-oncogenic type of HPV can cause warts in other areas of your body, not just your genitals. Warts can break out on the voice box or vocal cords, too, a condition known as laryngeal papillomas.
HPV and the Cervical Cancer Risk
The International Agency for Research on Cancer found that 13 types of HPV lead to cervical cancer.
The problems happen at a cellular level when our genes go haywire, and DNA mutations cause big trouble.
Let’s turn to the American Cancer Society for a full explanation:
“Some genes control when cells grow, divide, and die: ·
- Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes.
- Genes that help keep cell growth under control or make cells die at the right time are called tumour suppressor genes.
Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations (gene defects) that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumour suppressor genes.
Human papillomaviruses (HPV) have two proteins known as E6 and E7, which turn off some tumour suppressor genes, such as p53 and Rb. This may allow the cells lining the cervix to grow too much and to develop changes in additional genes, which in some cases can lead to cancer.”
Two strains – HPV 16 and HPV 18 – are responsible for around 80% of cervical cancer cases.
The symptoms of cervical cancer
The body is pretty good at letting us know if there’s something wrong.
With cervical cancer, there are a few symptoms to watch out for.
– Unusual vaginal bleeding
Look out for bleeding during or after sex, at irregular times in your menstrual cycle, or after menopause when your periods have stopped.
– Abnormal vaginal discharge
Discharge is perfectly normal, but if the smell or colour changes significantly, it could be a sign that something isn’t right.
– Discomfort or bleeding related to sex
If you feel significant discomfort during sex or begin bleeding during or after you have intercourse, this can be a symptom of cervical cancer.
– Pelvic or lower back pain
Patients diagnosed with cervical cancer often report pain around the hip bones and the lower tummy area.
Please be reassured that even if you do experience one or more of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer.
What it does mean is that you need to go to your GP and get checked to rule it out.
What are the survival rates for cervical cancer?
With any cancer, early detection can be crucial to a person’s survival – and cervical cancer is no different.
The Office of National Statistics has presented these general survival rates, which include cervical cancer cases across all stages.
- more than 80 out of every 100 (more than 80%) will survive their cancer for 1 year or more after they are diagnosed
- more than 60 out of every 100 (more than 60%) will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after diagnosis
- more than 50 women out of every 100 (more than 50%) will survive their cancer for 10 years or more after diagnosis
95% of patients who are diagnosed with stage one cervical cancer will survive for 5 years or more after diagnosis.
What’s the history of the HPV Vaccine?
The biggest breakthrough in the fight against cervical cancer came from Australia, specifically the University of Queensland.
Professors Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou began their work in 1990 while the rest of us were at the cinema sobbing over Patrick Swayze in Ghost.
Their work involved creating ‘virus-like particles’ (VLPs) that mimic HPV but don’t cause the infection.
When the VLPs are introduced into the body as a vaccine, the body responds by producing antibodies to attack them.
Having established that strategy for conquering VLPs, if a person comes into contact with HPV later in life, the body knows what to do.
What is the HPV Vaccine called?
The first vaccine to be approved was Gardasil which prevented high-risk HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18.
Cervarix was the second vaccine, which targets HPV 16 and 18.
The third vaccine – Gardasil 9 – was the big hitter that can take out HPV 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
These vaccines are now used in 100 countries across the world.
How is the vaccine administered?
You get the HPV vaccine in the upper arm and need two doses.
There must be at least a six-month delay between doses one and two.
Depending on the age you get the vaccine, you may need three doses.
Most people will get their HPV Vaccination at school, although you can ask your GP if you miss it for any reason.
It took almost two decades of research, development and clinical trials to bring the HPV vaccine to women worldwide.
Why do pre-teens get the HPV Vaccine?
The aim of the vaccination programme is to create immunity from HPV before a person becomes sexually active.
Studies also show that young teens produce more antibodies than older teens, which is why the vaccine program begins in UK schools for pupils aged 12.
In the UK, the NHS gives the vaccine for free to girls from 12 up to 18 – usually at school or in the GP surgery.
In the United States, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reports that vaccinated girls showed no sign of their protection decreasing after 12 years.
What are the results of the HPV Vaccine so far?
The HPV Vaccine has produced extraordinary results – dropping infections of HPV 16 and 18 by 86%.
Given that 80% of cervical cancer cases are caused by those two types, the importance of the vaccine cannot be underestimated.
The news is particularly good for young women, as Cancer Research UK reports that the highest incidences of cervical cancer cases are in the 30-35 age range.
Researchers are keen to discover how the vaccine will impact incidences as the first generation of vaccinated women reaches their 30s and 40s.
While the cancer rate drop is the headline news, the HPV Vaccine has also caused a decline in genital warts by 90% in 15 – 17-year-old girls and 70% in 15 – 17 year-old boys.
Reports show that boys are indirectly benefitting from the vaccination programme for girls as their immunity impacts the transmission of HPV to males.
The continued importance of smear tests
We’ve got a lot to celebrate thanks to this scientific breakthrough, but the humble smear test remains a vital medical tool.
The HPV Vaccine is a preventative measure, whereas the smear test gives us the full picture of what’s actually happening in the cervix.
While smear tests are nobody’s idea of fun, collecting cell samples from the cervix allows medics to discover if there are any abnormalities.
If there are problems with the health of your cervix, action can be taken immediately.
A worrying drop in women having smear tests
In 2021, the NHS reported a decrease in the number of people having smear tests.
While the COVID pandemic is a factor in the results, a drop of 2% in the 25 – 49 age group is worrying.
Women in that age range are the most at risk of developing cervical cancer, and a routine smear test might be the place it’s detected early.
That’s why it’s so important to talk to the women in your life to encourage them to keep appointments, overcome the embarrassment and ensure they get a full picture of the health of their cervix.
Breaking down the barriers to smear tests
There are no two ways about it – smear tests can be embarrassing.
For young women, in particular, worrying about shame, judgement or taking off clothes in front of a medical professional can impact their decision to get the test.
There are also serious factors, including trauma, FGM and disability, that can impact smear test rates.
Talking about smear tests is a good place to start – sharing your experiences with those who are worried about attending an appointment.
Make sure that they understand the medical professional has likely done the procedure hundreds of times before and will go out of their way to make a patient comfortable.
Dignity and respect are shown at all times during the appointments, and the test itself is over pretty quickly.
The benefits of early detection of abnormal cells can be the difference between life and death – so it’s vital to attend.
Fighting Cervical Cancer
The HPV Vaccine has given us a vital and lifesaving tool in the fight against cervical cancer.
With such remarkable results, there is cause for hope that we can push down the rates even further as innovation continues.
But it’s the combination of the HPV Vaccine and other health tools, including smear tests, that can give us the best chance to beat cervical cancer.
Please urge all the women in your life to keep their smear test appointments so that together we can drive down cervical cancer incidences and push up survival rates.
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