Cervical cancer: what does the HPV vaccine do?

Every year, there are some very sad cases of young women who have died from cervical cancer and this often leads to mothers asking me why their daughters can't have a cervical smear test done even though they are under 25 years of age. Cancer of the cervix is actually very rare in women under 25 years - around two out of 100 women with cancer of the cervix are under 25 years. Countries who screening younger women, do not actually diagnose more cervical cancer in these young women.

Cancer of the cervix is not as common as most people think - it is actually the 12th most common cancer in females in the UK. Around nine people are diagnosed each day with this type of cancer, which is much lower that the 150 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each day in the UK. However, it is actually the most common cancer in women under the age of 35 years.

What is the HPV vaccine?

Cervical cancer is different to other cancers in that the vast majority of cases are linked to an infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many different types of HPV and it is the "high-risk" types that are associated with developing cervical cancer. HPV is very common and highly contagious - it is a very common sexually-transmitted infection. People with HPV do not usually have any symptoms. Most people with HPV do not have any long-term affects of having this infection and in nine out of 10 HPV infections; it will clear completely from the body. This means that only a small proportion of women with HPV infection will develop cervical cancer.

So what is being done to prevent cervical cancer ?

The cervical screening programme was set up by the NHS in 1988 and has been a really successful screening programme. This screening actually prevents around 45% of cervical cancer cases in younger women and a very impressive 75% in older women, so long as these women attend regularly for their cervical smear test. Currently in England, cervical screening is offered to women between 25 and 64 years of age. With this test, abnormal cells which may develop into cancer in the future are looked for. So this is different to other screening tests, for example breast cancer screening, which looks for actual cancer. This means that women who have abnormal smears detected by the screening programme do not actually have cancer.

The most exciting development regarding the prevention of cervical cancer, however, is the HPV vaccine which was introduced in the UK in 2008. This vaccine is now offered to all girls aged 12-13 years. This vaccine is expected to prevent over 70% of all cervical cancers in the future.

Women who have cervical cancer usually have typical symptoms which include bleeding in between periods and/or after sexual intercourse. Other symptoms can include unusual vaginal discharge, discomfort during sex and lower back pain. Although most women with these symptoms do not have cervical cancer, it is really important to see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, even if you have had a normal smear in the past.

Dr Louise R. Newson, BSc(Hons) MRChB(Hons) MRCP FRCGP, is a GP and menopause expert, based in Solihull, West Midlands, UK.
Follow her on twitter: @mymenopausedr


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