Australia is on track to become the first country in the world to eradicate cervical cancer. With some more hard work, scientists are now predicting that cervical cancer could eventually become a disease of the past.
A woman dies of cervical cancer every 2 minutes. In 99.9 percent of cases, it is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Thanks to a massive vaccination program targeting this common infection, HPV prevalence among Australian women aged 18 to 24 has dropped from 22.7 percent to just 1.5 percent over the last 10 years, as reported in a new study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
This vaccination, combined with extensive cervical screening, is leading researchers to predict that cervical cancer will be almost non-existent in Australia in a few decades' time.
“We are forecasting that over the next 30-40 years, rates of cervical cancer will drop from around the current 930 cases a year in Australia to just a few,” lead author Professor Suzanne Garland, Director of the Centre for Women’s Infectious Diseases at the Royal Women’s Hospital, said in a statement.
“The research is showing a decline in rates of the cancer-causing HPV; however due to the delay between contracting HPV and cervical cancer developing, we expect it to be a few more years before we see a steep decline in rates of cervical cancer,” she added.
Remarkably, only 53 percent of women in Australia are vaccinated against HPV, however, they managed to achieve these remarkable results due to the “herd effect”, also known as “herd immunity”. This is a form of immunity that occurs when the vaccination of a significant portion of a population manages to dampen the spread of a disease enough to protect those who are not vaccinated. After all, practically all sexually active people come into contact with HPV.
“Our national HPV immunisation program for both boys and girls, combined with our cervical cancer population screening, means we are well positioned to be the first country to effectively end this deadly cancer,” added Professor Garland.
A handful of countries across the world have a widely available vaccination program for women, fully financed by national health authorities. In the US, the HPV vaccine can cost around $400 for the full regimen, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals.
Although rates of HPV and cervical cancer remain high in the developing world, the researchers are hoping their research will underpin the importance of these vaccination programs.
“The effectiveness of the vaccine and a lower cost is likely to make it possible for us to eliminate the disease in low socio-economic countries too,” Professor Garland added.