Cervical cancer – as well as some types of throat and mouth cancers – is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV, 13 of which are cancer-causing, and it’s mainly transmitted sexually. Partly as a result of the virus’ method of transmission and commonality, 270,000 women died from cervical cancer in 2012.
Back in 2006, however, a vaccine for HPV was made available for use. Since then, it’s been made available in 132 countries. A review on its effectiveness speaks for itself: With more than 208 million doses of the vaccine given out, the number of HPV infections have fallen by up to 90 percent in some areas, along with similar decreases in incidences of cervical abnormalities and genital warts.
Most importantly, the vaccine has halved the number of new cervical cancers ever since its rollout. Professor Ian Frazer, the co-creator of the vaccine and the Translational Research Institute CEO, thinks that at this rate, HPV could be completely eliminated by the middle of this century.
“If we vaccinate enough people we will eliminate these viruses because they only infect humans,” Frazer told BBC News. “In Australia there's already been a 90% reduction in infections in the 10 years the programme has been running.”
This vaccine is making huge inroads when it comes to preventing new infections from the virus, but its global distribution means that difficulties still remain on the path ahead.
“Most of us get the virus... [and] while we have it we are infectious and can pass it on to other people,” Frazer told the Brisbane Times. “If you look worldwide, a quarter of a million women worldwide die of cervical cancer every year and most that will die in the next 20 years are already infected with the virus and therefore for them the vaccine hasn't got anything to offer.”
“We are looking at a way to treat people who are already infected with the virus so they can get rid of it before they get cancer,” he added, pointing out that for many already infected with the high-risk variants of the virus, it may feel like it’s too late.
The vaccine was created by using genetic engineering techniques to construct a viral replica. This replica, once injected into a person’s bloodstream, stimulates the production of specific antibodies that, in future encounters with the real virus, bind to it to prevent it from infiltrating healthy cells.
Developing vaccines takes decades of hard work, patience, and many trials. The success of this one is a testament to all the researchers and medical professions that dedicated their lives to working on it so that other lives could be saved.