The rate of cervical cancer cases among women in the U.K. fell dramatically after the introduction of the first generation of HPV vaccines, according to estimates from a new study. The vaccine protects against multiple strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cervical cancer in some cases.
For the study, published this week in The Lancet and funded by charity Cancer Research UK, researchers looked at three groups of women who got the shots in 2008 in England when the country’s national HPV vaccination program began. Those groups included people who were vaccinated at age 12 to 13, at age 14 to 16, and at age 16 to 18, respectively. The researchers compared data from the vaccinated groups to data from older people who were not eligible to get the vaccine.
Through data modeling using information from a national cancer registry, the authors estimated that the vaccine prevented about 448 cases of cervical cancer between January 1, 2006, and June 30, 2021. They also estimated that the vaccine prevented around 17,325 cases of cervical precancerous cells, which can develop into cancer if left untreated. That amounts to an 87% reduction in cervical cancer cases among the youngest group during this time period. The groups that received the vaccine when they were older saw reduced but still significant reductions in their cervical cancer rates.
Note that in this study the researchers specifically looked at people who had received the vaccine Cervarix, which has since been voluntarily removed from the market. People in the U.S. may be more familiar with the similar Gardasil HPV vaccine, which was first introduced in the States in 2006 and in the U.K. in 2012.
Today in the U.S., the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be more than 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer this year, a rate that has declined significantly since the 1990s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that kids get the HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. But you can start it as early as age 9 and it’s recommended for everyone through age 26. Those who are older than 26 and haven’t gotten an HPV vaccine can still get one, but the CDC recommends they chat about the decision with a health care provider first. (By 26, the CDC says, most people have already been exposed to the virus, so there’s less of a benefit to getting vaccinated at that point.)
The original versions of the HPV vaccine, including Cervarix and Gardasil, only protected against a few strains of the virus. More recent versions of Gardasil protect against more strains. And it’s not just about cervical cancer—HPV infections can also cause throat and anal cancers, which have been on the rise over the past decade. So, getting your kids vaccinated against HPV helps protect them from both the virus and several HPV-related cancers.