Australia has taken on a bold and wide-reaching program to eliminate cervical cancer completely. It’s a bold program because it’s offered for free in schools to all teenagers ages 12 to 13. It’s also a simple program because it only requires distributing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations. Papillomavirus or HPV causes 99.9 cases of cervical cancer, and the vaccine can prevent the sexually transmitted disease.
Australia started the program in 2007. The federal government offered free vaccinations to girls who were 12 and 13 years old. In 2013, the free vaccinations were also offered to boys. Since then, boys and girls under the age of nineteen can also get two free doses of the disease-preventing vaccine.
Incidences of HPV in Australian women have been decreasing significantly. From 2005 to 2015, cases of HPV in women ages 18 to 24 dropped to 1.1 percent from a previous 22.7 percent, as immunization rates increased. Herd immunity, the circumstance where individuals who are unable to be immunized are still protected because the community of immunized people around them effectively suppresses the disease, is also thought to be one factor in the overall protection of Australian women.
The Australian government has also introduced a Cervical Screening Test which is more accurate at detecting HPV than traditional Pap tests. While Pap tests check for cell changes in the cervix, the Cervical Screening Test looks specifically and accurately for the HPV virus. The screening was introduced in 2017.
Educating women about the HPV vaccine has been ongoing. It’s been an struggle to convince parents that adolescents should be vaccinated. Some are reluctant to vaccinate their teenagers because they are concerned that doing so will encourage risky sexual behavior in teens. Others are opposed to vaccinations in general. But, studies have shown that HPV can lead to cervical cancer, so vaccinating both young women and young men is considered a wise step. Both Australia and the UK have been including the HPV vaccinations as part of their regular set of vaccinations.
It’s unfortunate, but the United States has fallen behind Australia and the UK. The HPV vaccine isn’t free in the United States. The full regimen often costs as much as $450, and this cost is too high for many young women. So many, in fact, that only about 50% of American teenage girls who were 13 to 17 years old were vaccinated for HPV in 2016. Only 38% of American teenage boys in the same age range were vaccinated for it that year. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation published the data as part of an educational article intended to inform the public about HPV. Considering that financial assistance to have the HPV vaccine is often available, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals highly recommends pursuing vaccinations.
Australia points to the high percentage of Australian girls and boys vaccinated in 2016 as remarkable. About 78% of girls age 15 and 72% of boys age 15 were vaccinated that year. The corresponding drops in levels of cervical cancer have supported excitement over the success and high hopes that there will be no new cases of cervical cancer as soon as ten to twenty years from now.
Australian medical professionals have hope not only for Australia, but for the developing world, where it’s common for women to lack access to care which is common in Australia. The Chief Executive of the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation, Joe Tooma, states that the incidence rate for the papillomavirus is still high in developing countries. It remains one of the major cancers which cause death in these countries, and nearly two-thirds of the women in the world do not have access to the levels of care Australian woman have.
Professor Ian Frazer co-created the HPV vaccine. He noted that HPV is so common that 5% of all cancers around the world are caused by papilloma virus infection. Not only is cervical cancer caused by it, but also mouth and throat cancers. Gardasil, the vaccine which targets HPV is the first cancer vaccine in the world, and it was administered for the first time ten years ago in Australia. It’s been administered in 130 countries worldwide, more than 187 million times. It’s used in New Zealand, North America and New Zealand, as well.
Since its inception, decreases in genital warts, cervical pre-cancers, and Pap abnormalities have been detected. Professor Suzanne Garland, M.D., the head of clinical microbiology and infectious diseases and director of microbiological research at Australia’s Royal Women’s Hospital noted that these decreases were all detected within four years after the vaccine was first introduced.
The fight against HPV related cancers continues with this highly effective vaccine. Eradicating HPV related cancers is possible. Australia is taking the lead by offering it free to adolescents. The International Papillomavirus Society’s announcement that Australia could eradicate cervical cancer completely is more than exciting. It is the beginning of a global challenge to create worldwide programs to offer the vaccine for free wherever people need assistance.