The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued a report today, Tuesday 22nd January, that found vaccinating teenage girls against HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is an effective way to prevent cervical cancer.

The report was produced at the request of the European Commission and some of the Member States and is intended to help them make decisions about when and how to introduce the vaccine. The report reviewed the evidence on HPV vaccination and how it might impact public health, thus enabling countries to establish and carry out appropriate policies.

The main cause of cervical cancer is persistent high risk HPV infection of the genital tract.

The vaccine protects against two high risk types of HPV (16 and 18) that are thought to cause 73 per cent of cervical cancers in Europe.

The HPV viruses are spread by sexual contact and targeting teenage girls before they become sexually active is a key part of the strategy’s effectiveness. However, there should also be what the report calls “catch up” programmes for slightly older girls.

The ECDC report emphasizes maintaining national screening programmes for cervical cancer as an important complement to HPV vaccination, and in a separate statement, the agency explains that while the report gives evidence of the effectiveness of HPV vaccinations, it is up to individual member states to decide whether to introduce them or not.

Some EC member states have already introduced an HPV vaccination programme, and others are thinking about it.

ECDC’s Chief Scientist said earlier today at the European Cervical Cancer Summit in Brussels:

“Vaccinating young adolescent girls against the Human Papillomavirus is likely to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer, provided that cervical cancer screening programmes are maintained.”

“HPV vaccination programmes do not eliminate the need for cervical cancer screening, even for women who have been vaccinated. Screening and HPV vaccination need to be made to work together in a cost-effective way that produces maximum benefit for women,” he explained.

The report was compiled by a panel of independent experts and coordinated by the ECDC who, assisted by the ECDC Advisory Forum reviewed the panel’s analysis and conclusions. The Advisory Forum comprises senior scientists from the Member States.

The panel reviewed two commercially available HPV vaccines: Gardasil (made by Sanofi Pasteur MSD) and Cervarix made by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals). Both vaccines protect against HPV strains 16 and 18, which are thought to be responsible for 73 per cent of cervical cancers in Europe.

The panel concluded that the most effective strategy would be to give the vaccines to teenage girls before they become sexually active. The age range, which varies from country to country, is around 12 to 15, said the panel.

The health benefits on a national scale will take time to appear because of the time lag between a national vaccination campaign in teenage girls and the anticipated drop in cervical cancer rates when they are much older.

Screening programmes should continue, said the panel, because there is still a (smaller) risk of getting cervical cancer from HPV types not covered by the vaccine, and also older women who have not been vaccinated should still be screened, as before.

The most cost effective way for countries to implement a vaccination campaign targeting teenage girls is likely to be school-based, said the report, followed by clinics and GP surgeries.

In the European Union, after breast cancer, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women in the 15 to 44 age group. The EU sees about 33,000 cases a year, where 15,000 women and girls lose their lives to the disease.

Click here for ECDC website.

Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control press release, MNT archive.

Written by: Catharine Paddock