In 2018, an estimated 570,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide, and about 311,000 women died from the disease. Almost all cervical cancer cases (99%) are linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses, an extremely common series of viruses transmitted through sexual contact1. The vaccine for these papillomaviruses was initially developed at the University of Queensland2.
In 2007 the Australian National Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccination Program commenced because extensive trials demonstrated that vaccinating young women with the HPV vaccine would be likely to significantly reduce cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths. The decision to introduce the program was made by the government after extensive consultation with scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts. From 2013, boys were included in the free school-based program, as persistent infection in men can cause penile and anal cancers in men3.
Almost all Australian schools chose to participate in the National HPV Vaccination Program and some 9 million doses of the vaccine have been given to girls and young women in Australia. Studies into the effectiveness of the vaccine have shown a 77% reduction in infection by HPV types responsible form almost 75% of cervical cancer and, as well, a 90% reduction in genital warts in heterosexual men and women under 21 years of age4.
In a huge study in Sweden, researchers have confirmed that widespread use of the HPV vaccine has dramatically reduced the number of women who will develop cervical cancer. In this study of nearly 1.7 million women, it was found that there was a 63% reduced risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer among women who had been vaccinated compared to those who hadn’t. It also found that the effect of the vaccine was particularly pronounced among girls vaccinated before the age of 17. Among that cohort, there was a nearly 90% reduction in the incidence of cervical cancer during the study period compared to the incidence in women who had not been vaccinated5.
A large study in England used data from a total of 13.7 million person-years of follow up between women aged from 20 to 29. It found that there was a 34% decrease in cervical cancer rates for women vaccinated at age 16-18; a 62% decrease for those vaccinated at age 14-16; and an 87% for those vaccinated at age 12-13. It also found that the corresponding risk reductions for CIN3 (the cervical abnormalities that may later lead to cancer) were 39% for those vaccinated at age 16-18, 75% for those vaccinated at age 14-16 years, and 97% for those vaccinated at age 12-13. This study shows that cervical cancer has almost been completely eliminated in women born after September 1st, 19956.
The massive success of this vaccination program in numerous places around the world makes you shake your head in disbelief at the initial attitude of people like Tony Abbott, who, in late 2006 when Health Minister in the Howard government, said he “wouldn’t be rushing out to get his daughters vaccinated” against cervical cancer7.
Even more astonishing, was the bizarre attitude of Barnaby Joyce, who opposed the free provision of this vaccine. Believe it or not, Joyce actually said “There might be an overwhelming backlash from people saying ‘Don’t you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a licence to be promiscuous’”8.
It is ironic that two of the most vocal opponents against vaccination of a sexually transmitted virus were indulging in a bit of extramarital horizontal folk dancing themselves.