Cancer-Causing HPV Almost Eliminated From Young Women In England Thanks To Vaccine Program

There are over 100 types of HPV, at least 14 of which are cancer-causing. Yabusaka/Shutterstock

HPV16 and 18, two of the most high-risk cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus, have been almost eliminated from young women in England thanks to the introduction of a mass vaccination program in schools.

The latest statistics from Public Health England (PHE), released on January 22, suggest there has been a dramatic collapse of HPV16/18 infections in sexually active young women living in England.

Within a sample group of 584 women age 16 to 18, they detected zero HPV16/18 infections in 2018. By comparison, around 15 percent of young women were infected with these types of HPV in 2008, the year the vaccination program was introduced.

Although the sample size is relatively small, fewer than 600 people, the report suggests the figures highlight a much wider decline in the virus in England. 

“This is clear evidence of the success of our immunisation programme, which continues to achieve high coverage,” Dr Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at PHE, said in a statement.

“With millions of young women protected by HPV vaccination, we expect to see big reductions in cervical cancer in years to come and the introduction of the boys’ programme will accelerate this progress.”

HPV is everywhere. It’s thought most people on the planet are infected with HPV at some point in their life. There are over 100 types of HPV, the huge majority of which are harmless and cause no symptoms. However, at least 14 are cancer-causing, such as HPV16 and 18 that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions. 

The current vaccine in England protects against HPV16, 18, 6, and 11, four of the most high-risk types of the virus that have a clear link to cervical cancer. The new figures also suggest that three other cancer-causing types, HPV31, 33, and 45, have also declined, suggesting the vaccine provides some cross-protection.

The national HPV vaccination program was introduced in England for girls in 2008 and was later extended to boys in 2019. The latest statistics show that 83.9 percent of girls between 13 and 14 years old had received two doses of the vaccine in 2018-2019. 

England isn’t the only country to experience huge success from their HPV vaccination program. Scotland’s HPV vaccine program has seen a similarly positive trend and Australia is on track to become the very first country to eradicate cervical cancer within the next couple of decades. 

However, it is not totally clear how this drop in HPV infections will be reflected in future rates of cervical cancer. Reported in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine earlier this month, a new analysis has raised doubts over the HPV vaccine’s ability to prevent abnormal cell changes that can eventually develop into cervical cancer.

With that said, the results of that study have proved controversial. 

“We should guard about over-interpreting their findings. Undoubtedly the current HPV vaccines are effective at preventing infection with the types of virus known to cause cervical and other cancers,” said Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, commenting on the study's findings. “But the authors in their provocative piece do raise some important points highlighting that HPV vaccination isn’t the absolute panacea for cervical cancer prevention.”

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