By Kathy Hubbard
A landmark study in 2020 in Sweden concluded that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine dramatically reduces the number of women who develop cervical cancer. How dramatically? To the tune of a 90 percent reduction in cervical cancer incidence compared to incidence of those unvaccinated during the 11-year study of nearly 1.7 million women.
“This is a vaccine against cancer, which can save lives,” said the study’s leader, Jiayao Lei, Ph.D. of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
In 2022, results from a study in Kenya found that even a single dose of the typical two or three-dose vaccination was highly effective in protecting young women against the cancer-causing HPV virus. The test was conducted as part of a global effort by researchers to make HPV vaccines more accessible to girls worldwide.
I found this information on www.cancer.gov, which is the website for the National Cancer Institute, so I’m betting it’s reliable. They also referenced a study completed in Costa Rica that had similar results.
Let’s go back in history for a moment. In the early 1900s, cervical cancer was the most common cause of death for American women. Then in 1927-29, Georgios Papanicolaou, a Greek physician, and Aurel Babes, a Romanian scientist, figured out that cancer cells could be detected by examining cervical cells. And the Pap smear (perhaps called that because no one can pronounce Papanicolaou) became and continues to be the most successful screening test for preventing malignancies.
The introduction of the Pap test, and its subsequent use, dramatically reduced the number of cases of cervical cancer. Cancer.net says they dropped by “more than 50 percent from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s due in part to an increase in screening, which can find cervical changes before they turn cancerous.”
In 1976 German virologist Harald zur Hausen published his hypothesis that HPV is involved in causing cervical cancer. He won a Nobel Prize for his finding. Then in 2006, the first HPV vaccine was developed, followed by a DNA test for HPV.
Information on the World Health Organization’s website discusses a global strategy for eliminating cervical cancer with specific action items implemented by 2030. Bear in mind elimination doesn’t mean eradication. Between five and eleven percent of cervical cancers are not caused by HPV but are more likely genetic.
The WHO’s lofty goals include having 90 percent of girls fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine by age 15 years; 70 percent of women screened with a high-performance test by 35 years of age and again by age 45, and by having 90 percent of women identified with cervical disease receive treatment.
So, what are the recommendations for preventing cervical cancer? Healthline tells us that HPV vaccination and regular screenings are the key.
“Currently, experts recommend that HPV vaccine schedules include two doses of the HPV vaccine for adolescents (note both girls and boys) starting at ages 11 to 12; ‘catch-up’ doses for both males and females before 27 years old, and doses for adults 27 to 45 who never received an HPV vaccine and may be considered high-risk,” Healthline says.
Also, remember that regular cervical cancer screenings are crucial to preventing this disease. That means women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women 30 to 65 should have a Pap test every three years or Pap testing and HPV co-testing every five years. Your primary care provider will talk to you about testing after you’re 65.
Besides an HPV infection, you’re at higher risk for cervical cancer if you smoke, have a weakened immune system, have a history of multiple full-term pregnancies, and if you’ve used birth control pills long-term.
If you’re a woman, please talk to your healthcare provider about your individual risk. If you’re a mother or father, please talk to your child’s pediatrician about the benefits of getting your child vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than 135 million doses of HPV vaccines have been distributed since they were licensed in 2006 and that among teen girls, infections with the types of HPV that cause cancers and genital warts has dropped 88 percent.
That’s what I call effective. What would you call it?
Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was written for publication in the Bonner County Daily Bee, published December 4, 2023.