Vaccinations are one of the great success story of modern medicine and have prevented a large amount of human suffering and death in modern times.
One of the more recent examples of an effective and successful widespread vaccination program is Australia’s National HPV Vaccination Program for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This program, in conjunction with a renewed National Cervical Screening Program, is helping to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in Australia.
In this month’s blog, we take a closer look at the HPV program and outline the new changes to cervical screenings for women.
What is HPV?
The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection globally and affects both males and females.
Unlike other diseases, HPV is not spread by blood or other body fluids. Rather, it is easily spread through direct skin to skin contact and up to 80% of sexually active people will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.
In many cases, the disease is harmless and people who have HPV may not show any signs or symptoms. However, in some people the virus can persist and lead to genital warts or cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva and anus. In fact, nearly all cervical cancer is caused by HPV.
Can it be prevented?
As HPV is so common and easily spread, it is difficult to prevent infection. However, there are a few steps people can take to reduce their risk of contracting the disease.
- Practice safe sex– if used correctly, condoms can help reduce the risk of genital HPV, as well as protect against other sexually transmitted disease. It’s important to note, however, that condoms don’t provide 100% protection against HPV.
- Regular cervical screenings– for females, regular cervical screenings can reduce the risk of developing the disease which can cause cervical cancer.
- Vaccination– results from the National HPV vaccination program indicate the HPV vaccine is highly effective in reducing the incidents of cervical cancer, cervical abnormalities and genital warts. The HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV known to cause cervical cancer, therefore it is important that women continue to have regular cervical screenings, even if they’ve had the HPV vaccine.
Australia’s National HPV Vaccination Program
In 2007, the Australian Government introduced the free National HPV Vaccination Program for girls in a bid to reduce HPV-related cancers in Australia.
From 2013, boys were included in the program to reduce rates of penile and anal cancers in men, which can also result from persistent HPV infection.
Almost all Australian schools currently participate in the program, which sees the HPV Gardasil®9 vaccine offered to girls and boys in Year 8. This age group is targeted as the vaccine has proved to be most effective before people become sexually active.
What’s in the vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is safe and well tolerated and millions of doses have been administered worldwide.
The vaccine doesn’t contain any live HPV virus, but instead contains a protein that helps the body’s immune system to fight HPV infection.
The vaccine protects women against most types of cancer and protects males from 90% of HPV that can cause cancers of the penis, anus and throat. It also protects against genital warts in both sexes.
The vaccine does not, however, treat existing HPV infections.
Over 9 million doses of the HPV vaccines have been given to girls and young women in Australia.
The results indicate that the vaccine is working and making a difference, including:
- a 77% reduction in HPV types responsible for almost 75% of cervical cancer;
- almost 50% reduction in the incidence of high-grade cervical abnormalities in Victorian girls under 18 years of age;
- a 90% reduction in genital warts in heterosexual men and women under 21 years of age.
This program, combined with a renewed National Cancer Screening Program, is significantly helping to reduce the risk of cervical cancer across Australia.
A renewed National Cervical Screening Program
With 99% of all cervical cancers caused by the HPV virus, the Australian Government introduced a renewed National Cervical Screening Program at the end of 2017 which specifically examines for HPV and replaces the two-yearly Pap test required for women aged 18-69.
It is a simple procedure that feels exactly the same as the Pap test and checks the health of the cervix, testing specifically for the HPV virus, which can cause changes to cells in your cervix and develop into cervical cancer.
Regular cervical screening remains the best way of protecting yourself against cervical cancer, even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.
For more information on this topic, visit:
- Cancer Council Australia – http://www.hpvvaccine.org.au
- Healthy WA – http://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/F_I/Human-papillomavirus-HPV
- National Cervical Screening Program – http://www.cancerscreening.gov.au/internet/screening/publishing.nsf/Content/cervical-screening-1
- Understanding HPV – http://www.hpv.com.au