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Cervical cancer vaccine shows promise

The number of girls developing medical problems which can lead to cervical cancer has begun to drop, following the introduction of a revolutionary vaccine.

A study of schoolgirls and young women given the cervical cancer vaccine in Victoria as part of a national program has revealed a significant fall in the number of girls being detected with abnormalities linked to the potentially deadly disease.

But the researchers behind the study warned that while their findings suggest the vaccine caused the fall in cervical cancer precursor rates, more research is needed to prove a definitive link.

The study found the number of girls aged under 18 with high grade cervical lesions, which are the common precursors to cervical cancer, had fallen from almost one in 100 to about one in 200 in the three years after the program began in 2007.

However they found no major falls in abnormality rates in women aged over 18 who had received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine against cervical cancer.

It is the first time research has shown a drop in cervical cancer precursor rates since the vaccine program for schoolgirls aged 12 to 13 and women aged up to 26 was launched.

The findings, published in The Lancet and based on data collected by the Victorian Cervical Cytology Registry, come after a separate study found a fall in the occurrence of genital warts among girls who had received the vaccine.

The registry's epidemiologist Dr Julia Brotherton, who led the study, said both sets of research indicated the vaccine program was having an impact.

But she said it was essential more studies comparing lists of vaccinated women with results from their regular cervical smears were carried out in order to confirm whether the vaccine was the definite reason behind the fall in abnormality rates.

"It's very promising and combined with the decline in genital warts we have seen across Australia we do think it's probably due to the vaccine," she said.

"The next thing we need to do to prove it's a consequence of the vaccine is we need to link the data (regarding smear results and vaccinated women) and that will tell us whether rates are falling in the vaccinated group."

Sometimes referred to as the "common cold" of sexually transmitted diseases, HPV is a group of viruses that are the major cause of cervical cancer and can cause warts.

Four out of five people have HPV at some point in their life.

The HPV vaccine is designed to prevent women being infected with the virus, which can cause abnormalities within months and ultimately lead to cervical cancer.

It is regarded as being most effective if given to girls before the start of sexual activity.

Brotherton said one possible reason why the study had not uncovered a fall in abnormality rates in women over 18 could be because they had been sexually active and infected with HPV before being vaccinated.


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