Published: 15 January 2024
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common form of cancer among women worldwide and sadly, each year, more than 50 women in Wales die from it.
Lisa Henry, Head of Cervical Screening Wales at Public Health Wales explains how since the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was introduced in 2008, Cervical Cancer rates in women in their 20s who were offered the vaccine at 12 to 13 years of age have reduced by almost 90 per cent, and how Public Health Wales aims to make Cervical Cancer a disease of the past.
“Public Health Wales, along with the World Health Organization believe that by raising awareness, through vaccination, screening and therefore early detection, and treatment, eliminating Cervical cancer is possible.
It’s estimated that eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. HPV is a common group of more than 100 viruses, spread by skin-to-skin contact.
HPV usually has no symptoms, which is why it’s so easy to pass on. In most people, HPV does not cause any problems, as the body will get rid of the virus on its own.
However high-risk types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. In some cases, cell changes can go back to normal, but sometimes they can get worse and become cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by high risk HPV and two specific HPV types (types 16 and 18) cause around 70 per cent of cervical cancers.
The HPV vaccine is given in Wales as a free, single dose to boys and girls aged 12/13 (year eight secondary school), giving long-lasting protection against the types of HPV that cause cancers of the cervix, anus, head, neck and penis as well as genital warts.
Since the HPV vaccine was widely introduced in 2008, research* shows that it has already reduced cervical cancer rates by almost 90 per cent in women in their 20s who were vaccinated at age 12/13. Estimates indicate that the HPV vaccination programme has prevented around 450 women developing cervical cancer and 17,200 cases of precancerous conditions over this 11-year period and it is expected that the HPV vaccine will continue to save hundreds of lives every year in the UK.
It is proven to give excellent protection from HPV and has a long-established safety record. For unvaccinated women the lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer is estimated as one in 142.
The HPV vaccination is given as part of the school’s vaccination programme, year eight pupils usually have the vaccination from January until June. Parents and carers should look out for the information from school, discuss it with their child and return the consent form as soon as possible.
Young people who have missed their HPV vaccination when it was offered can receive it up until their 25 birthday for:
Girls born after 1 September 1991
Boys born after 1 September 2006
They can contact their GP to get vaccinated and ensure that they are protected from HPV in the future.
Cervical cancer is curable if detected early through screening and treated. Evidence shows that regular screening prevents 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.
Screening is important for both non-vaccinated and vaccinated women and people with a cervix. It looks for the presence of the high-risk types of HPV on the cervix, and then for cell changes caused by the virus. If found early, treatment is straightforward and greatly reduces the chances of cell changes developing into cervical cancer.
Screening is most effective when you attend regularly. Cervical Screening Wales (CSW) will invite you when you are due, and can answer any questions about your screening appointment.
Most cases of cervical cancer are curable if found and treated early, but sadly one third of women will die within five years of diagnosis of invasive cervical cancer, especially if it is found at an advanced stage.
We have already achieved so much in reducing cervical cancer. By providing a high-quality vaccination programme, coupled with an effective cervical screening programme and treatment, means that we really do stand a chance of eliminating cervical cancer in the future.”