A recent study published in The Lancet (Nov 2021) confirmed that the Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine cut cases of cervical cancer in the UK by 87%. The results were hailed as powerful further evidence that the vaccine has prevented, and will continue to prevent, thousands of young people from falling ill. Dr Neil Forrest from Osler Health discusses the vaccine, and what protection it can offer:
What is HPV?
HPV is an incredibly common virus of which there are approximately 100 different strains that can infect humans. Of these, there are around 14 different types which can infect the genital region, and we know that around 80% of sexually active people come into contact with at least one type of HPV. Most people get no symptoms and would not know that they had the virus but, in some people, HPV causes warts.
What is the link between HPV and cancer?
HPV infection of the cervix is responsible for practically all cases of cervical cancer. This can be a devastating disease and tends to affect younger women. We try to prevent cervical cancer by screening for it with PAP smear tests. HPV is also linked to other genital cancers as well as some neck and throat cancers. Fortunately, most people who come into contact with HPV clear the virus naturally and even in those who don’t, not all of them will go on to develop cancer.
What are the results of the vaccine?
The vaccine prevents infection from human papillomavirus, a group of viruses behind 90% of cervical cancer cases. Australia was one of the first countries to implement a national vaccination programme for girls in 2007 and then included boys from 2013. It has one of the highest HPV vaccination take up rates in the world. As a result, the HPV rate among women ages 18 to 24 dropped from 22 percent to 1 percent between 2005 and 2015. In the UK it has been given to girls at the age of 12 and 13 since 2008, and in 2019 it was made available to teenage boys for the first time. A recent Cancer Research UK-funded study (Nov 2021) found that cervical cancer rates in women offered the vaccine between the ages of 12 and 13 (now in their 20s) were 87% lower than in an unvaccinated population.
Who should be vaccinated against HPV?
I recommend HPV vaccination for all girls and boys. This is normally done between the ages of 10 and 14 (to be most effective, the vaccine should be given before someone becomes sexually active). The vaccine consists of two doses done 6 months apart in children age 15 and under, but in those over 15 an extra dose is required. Research data suggest that the vaccines provide near 100% protection for many years.
Are there any side-effects?
Side effects are rare and include those which are common to most vaccines – pain and redness at the injection site, fever and aches. We do see a higher rate of fainting after Gardasil vaccination (this may be related to the fact that fainting is generally more common in adolescent girls anyway), so the vaccine is given with the patient sitting or lying down, and we observe everyone for 15 minutes following the injection to make sure they feel OK.
Does the vaccine interact with COVID vaccines?
We don’t think so but as a precaution I advised leaving at least a two-week gap between COVID-19 vaccination and other vaccine doses. HPV vaccine can be given at the same time as a tetanus booster and is often done so, as these vaccines are often due to be given 1 round 12–14-years old.
If your child is between 10 – 15 years old, you may wish to book in for their HPV vaccine. Or if you have questions please call Osler Health International and we will happily advise.
Dr Neil Forrest is a British GP based at Osler Health International at Star Vista (just off Holland Road and very close to Tanglin Trust School). www.osler-health.com or call 6339 2727.