A vaccine for cancer almost sounds too good to be true, but in the case of cervical cancer, it’s happening already. A new study in the UK shows that the human papillomavirus (or HPV) vaccine is already cutting cases of cervical cancer by up to 90%.
Vaccinating against cancer
There are many different types of cancer, and they often manifest themselves in different ways. Increasingly, research is showing that some types of cancers are caused by viruses — and as dreadful as that sounds, it opens up an opportunity: if we can prevent the viruses from doing damage, we could also prevent those cancers from developing.
This is exactly what’s happening with HPV. HPV infections typically cause no symptoms and 90% of them resolve naturally within two years. However, in some cases, the infection can result in either warts or lesions. These lesions can increase the risk of cancer — not just in the cervix, but also in the anus, vagina, throat, penis, or tonsils.
Thankfully, there’s a vaccine for HPV. HPV vaccines are very safe and have been shown to be extremely effective against cervical cancer (as well as other types of cancer) in trials. As a result, several countries have started vaccination campaigns, especially focusing on teenage girls. In England, a vaccination program was launched 13 years ago, and now, evidence shows that cervical cancer rates in women offered the vaccine between the ages of 12 and 13 (now in their 20s) were 87% lower than in the unvaccinated population. Cases in this age group (which are relatively rare) just dropped from 50 a year to around 5 a year.
The HPV vaccine can only prevent an infection — it can’t do anything if you’re already infected with the virus. This is a key problem because the virus is so widespread that immunization campaigns have to be aimed at children before they are sexually active (as the virus is transmitted through sexual contact).
In the UK, girls are offered the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13, and since 2019, the vaccine has also been offered to boys. Although the virus is not as harmful to boys, it can still raise the risk of some cancers, and boys can also be carriers and pass the virus on.
The power of science
The investigated vaccine (Cervarix) was administered in England from 2008 to 2012. A different one (Gardasil), which offers protection for more HPV variants, is administered now. The study, which has been published in The Lancet, found a 97% drop in pre-cancerous changes in women vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 13, 75% in women vaccinated between the ages of 14 and 16, and 39% in women vaccinated between the ages of 16 and 18.
“The HPV immunisation programme has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since Sept 1, 1995,” the study reads.
Overall, researchers estimate that the vaccine prevented 17,200 cervical carcinomas (pre-cancers) in England. The results were even better than expected. Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said the results are a triumph of science and an important milestone in our fight against cancer:
“Results like this show the power of science. It’s a historic moment to see the first study showing that the HPV vaccine has and will continue to protect thousands of women from developing cervical cancer.”
Almost 9 in 10 severe cases of cervical cancer occur in low and middle-income countries, where there is little access to cervical cancer screening. This is why researchers believe that a vaccination campaign in these countries would make a much bigger impact than in wealthier nations such as the UK. Supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), over 100 countries have now implemented similar campaigns, and the WHO believes that with this type of campaign, we can actually eliminate cervical cancer across the world. Although that’s still a ways away now, the fact that we can vaccinate against a type of cancer is fantastic news.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women in the world, killing more than 300,000 each year.