With Australia on its way to becoming the first country in the world to eradicate cervical cancer, a new study suggests that by the end of the century, the disease could be wiped out in 82 percent of countries across the globe.
To achieve this exciting goal, we will need to rapidly expand two very important methods used to prevent cervical cancer – the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and HPV-based cervical screening, which detects pre-cancers that can then be treated. The researchers used computer modeling to study 181 countries, published their findings in The Lancet Oncology.
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, a group of over 150 viruses that are transmitted during sex. The majority of people will be infected with HPV at some point in their life but it’s usually symptomless and doesn’t cause any problems. However, for an unlucky few it can lead to the development of cancer. Last year, 570,000 new cases were diagnosed worldwide.
The team behind the new research estimate that if current prevention methods are not expanded, 44.4 million women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer over the next 50 years. Thanks to population growth and aging, annual diagnoses will rise from 600,000 in 2020 to 1.3 million in 2069.
But that doesn’t have to happen. If more and more people are vaccinated, and more women are given access to screening, the researchers estimate that 13.4 million cases could be prevented in the next five decades. By 2100, the average number of diagnoses should also drop to fewer than four per 100,000 women globally – the threshold for potential elimination of the disease as a major public health threat.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for the expansion of cervical cancer prevention methods and a draft global strategy will be reviewed at the World Health Assembly in 2020.
“More than two-thirds of cases prevented would be in countries with low and medium levels of human development like India, Nigeria, and Malawi, where there has so far been limited access to HPV vaccination or cervical screening,” said lead researcher Professor Karen Canfell in a statement.
“The WHO call-to-action provides an enormous opportunity to increase the level of investment in proven cervical cancer interventions in the world’s poorest countries. Failure to adopt these interventions will lead to millions of avoidable premature deaths.”
The current disparity between vaccination and screening rates in different countries means that high-income countries like the UK, US, Canada, and Finland could see an end to HPV in the next 25 to 40 years. Meanwhile, poorly developed countries such as Haiti and Ethiopia would likely not achieve the same result until 2090-2100 or later.
The team also note that even if prevention methods are rapidly increased by 2020, certain African countries such as Uganda and Kenya would not see cervical cancer cases drop below four per 100,000 women by the end of the century.
The researchers point out that their findings may be limited due to a lack of high-quality data for developing countries and differences between sexual behavior around the world. They note that their study looks at a best-case scenario, where global vaccination rates reach 80 percent or higher, a goal that won’t be easy to achieve.
Nevertheless, they say the disease could be eliminated in 149 out of 181 countries by 2100. This achievement would save the lives of millions of women, so if you’re lucky enough to have access to the HPV vaccine and HPV screening tests, make sure you get them. The vaccine is normally given at age 11-12, but anyone – both men and women – can get vaccinated between the ages of 9 and 45.