Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect your skin and the mucous membranes lining your body. This group consists of more than 150 related viruses, which are all very common sexually transmitted infections that usually cause no symptoms and go away by themselves. However, if they persist, they can cause serious health problems.
HPV types fall into two categories: low-risk HPV and high-risk HPV. Low-risk HPV (for example, HPV types 6 and 11) does not cause cancer and usually goes away by itself, whereas, high-risk HPV causes cancer. There are about a dozen high-risk HPV types that have been identified, the two main ones being types 16 and 18, which are responsible for most HPV-caused cancers.
HPV is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer. This is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK, as well as being one of the deadliest but most preventable cancers. Cervical cancer has higher survival rates the earlier it is caught, however there are often no symptoms in its early stages. The NHS Cervical Screening Programme has proved successful at early detection of cell changes and has reduced cervical cancer rates, but there are still around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the UK each year, which cause around 900 deaths.
HPV’s high cancer rates have resulted in large investments into vaccinations, which were first made available to the public in 2006, to reduce the rates of all cancers caused by it, but cervical cancer in particular. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends HPV vaccines as a part of routine vaccinations in all countries. In September 2008, the HPV vaccination with Cervarix and later Garasil, which protects against HPV types 16 and 18, was introduced into the national immunisation program for girls ages 12-13 across the UK. The current vaccination has a 70% success rate and there is hope a new vaccination will come out in 2019 with success rates of 90%. However, it is thought to be many years before the vaccination program has its full effect on cervical cancer incidences and women are advised to continue accepting their invitations for cervical screenings.
The University of Aberdeen carried out and recently published a study which examined women who had received the HPV vaccination. It was found that the number of young women in Scotland showing early signs of potential cervical cancer has dropped by 41% since the school vaccination programme was introduced. Moreover, the team produced figures suggesting the vaccine program had delivered significant benefits 20 years earlier than expected.
There are continuous advancements in vaccine technology which have led to wider coverage on HPV strains that protect against a broader range of HPV infections and cancers. However, although a large population of young women in the UK have been vaccinated against the highest risk HPVs, both men and previous generations of women are without vaccinations. While we are unlikely to ever reach a fully HPV free future, it may indeed be possible for high risk strains of HPV to be eliminated. But, in order for this high risk strain HPV free future to be achieved, a large proportion of the total population would need to be vaccinated, a process that will take many generations.
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