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Cervical cancer in rich countries ‘could be wiped out within decades’

HPV has led to an 83% reduction in infections in 15 to 19 year-old girls

Cervical cancer in wealthy countries such as the UK could be eliminated within decades, experts say.

It follows a study showing the success of the HPV jab in protecting women.

Human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted, can cause cervical cancer as well as anogenital warts. Data from high-income countries shows vaccination has led to an 83% reduction in HPV infections in 15 to 19 year-old girls over five to eight years.

Among women aged 20 to 24, infections are down 66%, according to the research published in the Lancet medical journal.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is setting goals for reducing the number of cases of cervical cancer to no more than four per 100,000 population, below the threshold for a rare disease.

Prof Marc Brisson from Laval University, one of the authors of the research, said: “We’re working with the WHO, using mathematical modelling to determine when elimination would occur. We don’t have a precise date. High vaccine coverage has to be maintained. It depends on the country and how much coverage and screening there is, and how many cohorts have been vaccinated.”

Australia, where take-up of the vaccine is almost as good as in the UK, is now working towards elimination. “There could be elimination in decades,” said Brisson.

The study, reported by the Guardian, shows vaccinating multiple cohorts of girls at different ages, as took place at the beginning of the programme in the UK, helps bring down HPV infection rates. HPV vaccination was introduced for girls aged 12 in schools in the UK, but a catch-up programme allowed girls up to the age of 18 to be vaccinated as well.

From September, the UK will begin offering HPV vaccination to boys, which will further reduce the pool of the virus.

Dr David Mesher, a principal scientist at Public Health England, said it was too early to see data on a drop in cervical cancer cases because this takes years to develop. At the moment, the burden of cervical cancer is in women who were too old to be vaccinated.

The paper looked only at studies carried out in high-income countries where there has not been opposition to the vaccine.

There is also no data from less wealthy countries, where there are the highest numbers of women with and dying from cervical cancer. In 2018, there were 569,000 cases of cervical cancer worldwide and 313,365 deaths, 80% of which were in these countries.