Studies confirm value of cervical cancer vaccination

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new study by the Health Protection Agency has revealed that at least ten per cent of English girls have been infected with one or more strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), certain strains of which are known to cause cervical cancer, by the time they are 16.

Researchers from the agency tested blood samples from 1,483 women to look for antibodies indicating they had been infected with the virus, which can also cause genital warts.

They found that the risk of HPV infection increases rapidly from the age of 14.

Andrew Vyse, who presented the study at the agency's annual conference, said that the study provides "vital information about how common HPV infection is in young women".

Mr Vyse admitted that the study does not give a precise estimate of infection rates and said that further research is needed.

"The study adds to what we already know about HPV, however we still need to learn more about the risks of infection and of the risks for persistent infection and progression to cancer," he claimed.

Professor Pat Troop, chief executive of the HPA, said that the findings "should contribute to effective policies to prevent genital warts and cervical cancer".

"With the government's recent announcement of the possible introduction of HPV vaccination, such research will help us and other public health experts to determine the impact of HPV vaccination," he said.

A separate study, also by the HPA and published in the British Journal of Cancer, has provided evidence for the cost-effectiveness of an HPV vaccination programme, which is expected to be introduced for 12-year-old girls in England next year.

Modelling data that will inform the Department of Health's policy decision has shown that 70 per cent of cases of cervical cancer and 95 per cent of cases of genital warts could be prevented by including an HPV vaccine in the UK's immunisation programme.

Lead researcher Mark Jit said: "Our models suggest that vaccination could play a beneficial role in preventing cervical cancer and genital warts in the UK.

"The benefits to health would be worth the cost of vaccination if our model assumptions are correct."

The researcher noted that follow-up of vaccinated women would be required for many decades in order to verify predictions about the long-term impact of vaccination.

However, Professor Troop stressed that cervical screening would remain "important, and the best way for older women (who are not vaccinated) to reduce their risk of cervical cancer". "Also, current vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that cause cervical cancer, and screening will remain the best way to protect against disease caused by these other types," he added.