There is more good news about the HPV vaccine – since being introduced in the UK in 2008, the cervical cancer rate has dropped by 90% according to a recently published peer-reviewed article. Cervical cancer, which kills over 300,000 women a year across the world, is close to being eliminated in countries that recommend the HPV vaccine for women and men.
The HPV vaccine used to be the most hated by anti-vaccine zealots, being surpassed by the COVID-19 vaccine these days, but it is remarkably safe and effective. There are so few ways to prevent cancer, and yet this is one of the best tools that we have in cancer prevention.
Let’s take a look at this new paper, just so we can pile onto the narrative about the overwhelming effectiveness of this vaccine.
All about HPV and HPV vaccines
I know I cut and paste this section to every article I write about HPV vaccines, but it’s the first step to HPV vaccine myth debunking. Some readers may be coming here for the first time, and they ought to know just how the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.
However, I try to update this section when necessary with new information about either the disease or the vaccine. If you’ve read this section 47 times, just skip down to the next section where I discuss the key point of this article.
Genital and oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the USA. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
It’s important to note that there are more than 150 strains or subtypes of HPV that can infect humans – however, only 40 of these strains are linked to one or more different cancers. Of those 40 strains, most are fairly rare.
Although the early symptoms of HPV infections aren’t serious and many HPV infections resolve themselves without long-term harm, HPV infections are causally linked to many types of cancers in men and women. According to current medical research, here are some of the cancers that are linked to HPV:
In addition, there is some evidence that HPV infections are causally linked to skin and prostate cancers. The link to skin cancer is still preliminary, but there is much stronger evidence that HPV is linked to many prostate cancers.
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco in that respect. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV – approximately 14 million Americans contract a new HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. The CDC also states that over 43,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year. It may be several times that amount worldwide.
There were two HPV vaccines on the world market before 2014. GSK, also known as GlaxoSmithKline, produced Cervarix, a bivalent (protects against two HPV strains) vaccine. It has been withdrawn from the US market (although available in many other markets), because of the competition from the quadrivalent (immunizes against four different HPV strains) and 9-valent (against nine HPV strains) Gardasil vaccines.
Merck manufactures Gardasil, probably the most popular HPV vaccine in the world. The first version of the vaccine, quadrivalent Gardasil, targets the two HPV genotypes known to cause about 70% of cervical cancer and two other HPV genotypes that cause genital warts. In Europe and other markets, Gardasil is known as Silgard.
The newer Gardasil 9, approved by the FDA in 2014, is a 9-valent vaccine, protecting against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. It targets the four HPV strains found in the quadrivalent version, along with five additional ones that are linked to cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Both versions of Gardasil are prophylactic, meant to be given to females or males before they become exposed to possible HPV infection through intimate contact.
Gardasil is one of the easiest and best ways to prevent a few dangerous and, to abuse the definition slightly, common cancers that afflict men and women. Without a doubt, the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.
Currently, in the United States, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that preteen girls and boys aged 11 or 12 are vaccinated against HPV. The immunization is also recommended for teenage girls and young women up to the age of 26 who did not receive it when they were younger, and teenage boys and young men up to the age of 21.
Let me sum this all up so that if you come away from this section with nothing else, you get this summary. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. HPV causes 43,000 cancers a year in the USA alone. The HPV vaccine prevents becoming infected by HPV, which means you are protected from these cancers.
HPV vaccine cut cervical cancer rates paper
In a paper published in The Lancet on 3 November 2021, researchers examined the change in cervical cancer and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 3 (CIN 3), grade 3 cervical dysplasia, incidences since the introduction of the HPV vaccine for girls in England in 2008.
Those individuals are now adults in their 20s, and the study showed that, compared to the unvaccinated cohort, the HPV vaccine group had the following reduction in cervical cancer rates:
- 34% for the cohort that first received the vaccine at 16-18 years (school year 12-13).
- 62% for 14-16 years (school year 10-11).
- 87% for 12-13 years (school year 8).
The reduction in cervical cancer rate decreases with each year older of first vaccination – this may be a result of previous exposure to HPV before receiving the vaccine or there is less time for the development of cervical cancer, so the numbers are lower for those who were older at time of vaccination.
The risk reduction for CIN 3, the pre-cancerous stage, showed a similarly remarkable reduction compared to the unvaccinated cohort:
- 39% for the cohort that first received the vaccine at 16-18 years (school year 12-13).
- 75% for 14-16 years (school year 10-11).
- 97% for 12-13 years (school year 8).
The researchers estimated that by 30 June 2019, there had been 448 fewer than expected cervical cancers and 17,235 fewer than expected cases of CIN3 in vaccinated in England compared to unvaccinated cohorts.
The authors concluded:
We observed a substantial reduction in cervical cancer and incidence of CIN3 in young women after the introduction of the HPV immunisation programme in England, especially in individuals who were offered the vaccine at age 12–13 years. The HPV immunisation programme has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since Sept 1, 1995.
I closely monitor a few areas of the internet where you can gauge what people are concerned about in health. Of course, right now, it’s COVID-19. But right behind is cancer. People think that everything causes cancer, that there are miracle ways to prevent or cure cancer, or they’re going to die of cancer because they drink too much coffee (seriously, this is asked over and over).
But right here we have repeated, robust, and rigorous research that shows that the HPV vaccine can prevent not only cervical cancer but also the pre-cancerous CIN 3 which might lead to cervical cancer. But more than that, the HPV cancer-prevention vaccine can reduce the risk of a whole bunch of other cancers.
It almost doesn’t matter what age or what gender you are, get the HPV vaccine so you can have control over a few cancer risks. And one more thing that this research tells us – the younger you are when you get the vaccine, the better the results. Get the HPV vaccine for your kids now, they’ll thank you years from now when they don’t get cancer.
- Falcaro M, Castañon A, Ndlela B, Checchi M, Soldan K, Lopez-Bernal J, Elliss-Brookes L, Sasieni P. The effects of the national HPV vaccination programme in England, UK, on cervical cancer and grade 3 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia incidence: a register-based observational study. Lancet. 2021 Nov 3:S0140-6736(21)02178-4. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02178-4. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34741816.