What is the HPV vaccine?

The Human Papilloma Virus usually just causes tiny growths known as harmless warts. In some cases however, strains of the virus can cause a lasting, persistent infection that ultimately leads to the formation of cancerous growths. HPV infections are thought to be behind virtually every case of cervical cancer in the world, and as such prevention of these infections is a major concern. Vaccinations against HPV have been developed, and these have proven effective in cutting down the number of cases of cervical cancer reported since the introduction of the immunisation programme.

The HPV vaccines

There are two HPV vaccines in current use, and these are Cervarix and Gardasil. Both have been engineered to immunise against two variants of HPV known to cause 40% of vulvar cancers, 80% of anal cancers, 60% of vaginal cancers, and 70% of cervical cancers, as well as a large portion of oral cancers that can result from sexual contact with HPV infected genitals. These strains are HPV-16 and HPV-18.

Gardasil is also designed to protect against two further strains, HPV-11 and 6, which are thought to be responsible for at least 9 out of every 10 cases of genital warts.

The World Health Organisation has recommended the use of these vaccines to prevent HPV infections that could develop into cancers. Persistent HPV infections that do eventually result in cancer are also problematic because they don’t present with any significant symptoms until the cancer has progressed past a certain stage, after which treatment is difficult. By immunising against HPV, the incidence of what is a subtle and often insidious cancer is dramatically cut back.

HPV vaccination on the NHS

HPV vaccination has been introduced by the NHS as part of a routine childhood immunisation programme that also protects against a variety of other virulent diseases. The vaccine is given to girls in their teens, and while initially Cervarix was used as the cervical cancer vaccine, it was replaced by Gardasil as of September 2012. This is because of the additional protection Gardasil confers against genital warts.

It is important to note two key points about the current immunisation programme. Firstly it will take some time before the vaccination programme begins to significantly impact the number of cervical cancer cases reported every year here in the UK. This is because vaccination programmes have far reaching consequences, and ultimately, given enough time, diminish a viruses’ ability to spread through a population.

Secondly despite the advent of HPV immunisation, regular screening remains important. The vaccine is highly effective, however it is advised that you err on the side of caution and regularly schedule pap smears to ensure that you are not infected with HPV.

The HPV vaccine is a great example of up and coming vaccination technologies that are combating a wide range of serious illnesses. Cervical cancer, as well as others caused by HPV, can be devastating and very difficult to detect in time for effective treatment. Prevention strategies like the HPV vaccine ultimately reduce the chances of serious diseases, and will pave the way for a safer and healthier future.

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