One of the more recent advances in vaccination technology has been the development of the HPV vaccine, an immunising injection against the human papillomavirus (HPV). In this article we look at HPV and its vaccination, and why it has become an important part of the NHS’ vaccination programme.
What is HPV?
The human papilloma virus causes skin infections that cause warts, which are usually fairly small skin growths. There are actually dozens of different strains of HPV (there are an estimated 40 strains that we know of), each slightly different in how they work to infect people. Some HPV strains are sexually transmitted and responsible for genital warts, while others have different effects.
Warts themselves are relatively harmless, however HPV can cause more serious conditions over time. Infection with certain strains of HPV can cause these growths to develop into cancerous lesions, and it is this virus which is in fact responsible for nearly all incidences of cervical cancer.
In most cases however, HPV infections are fairly brief. An estimated 70% resolve within a year, and 90% within 2. Infections persisting beyond the two year point are the ones at risk of developing into cervical cancers. This is by no means a quick process or a sure one, but in many cases if an HPV infection persists for a period of 10 or 15 years, it will lead to cancer. This is why prevention strategies are so important, because most HPV infections will pass unnoticed without any major symptoms unless they develop into a cancer.
Unfortunately cancers that develop over such a long period of time can remain untreated until more serious symptoms develop and the disease is quite advanced. Because of this, screening techniques are also an extremely important part of preventing cervical cancers.
Vaccinating and screening against HPV
The two most important and effective strategies against HPV are screening and prevention. The former involves regular testing for HPV infections which usually remain symptomless for prolonged periods of time. Women who are sexually active are advised to attend screening clinics if they haven’t been immunised, and these are a superb way of checking for any HPV infections.
Pap smears are the main screening technique in use. Pap is actually an abbreviation for the actual name of the test, which is Papanicolaou test, a technique used to look for cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. This is an extremely efficient but also convenient test as no invasive procedure is required.
Pap smears alone have very successfully reduced the number of cervical cases in developed countries. The US alone demonstrated an approximately 60% decrease in the number of cervical cancer cases since screening was first introduced.
Vaccination is a vital preventative technique that has also hugely impacted the number of cervical cancer cases across countries which make use of regular immunisation programmes. There are two vaccines for HPV, Cervarix (manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline) and Gardasil (made by Merck), both of which work against HPV strains known to be responsible for over two thirds of cervical cancer cases.
The HPV vaccine is an extremely important measure that has already drastically reduced incidences of cervical cancer. Even after immunisation however, further screening is recommended.
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