Up to 93 per cent of cervical cancers in Australia could be prevented by a new HPV vaccination, and researchers hope one day vaccination will almost entirely eradicate the disease.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers in Melbourne have taken an in-depth look at a large number of cervical cancer samples – 847 in total – to determine the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cancer in Australian women.

The ground-breaking results show that 77 per cent of cervical cancers in Australian women carry the HPV types 16 and 18, which the current quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil) protects against – higher than the international prevalence (71 per cent).

Importantly, the study further identified that 16 per cent of Australian cancers contain the next five most common cancer-causing types globally (types 31, 33. 45, 52 and 58), which a new HPV vaccine, currently under consideration for use in the Australian National HPV Vaccination Program, would protect against.

HPV is a group of viruses mainly transmitted through sexual contact and most people are infected with HPV shortly after the onset of sexual activity. A small number of those infected will go onto to develop abnormal cells that are the precursor to cervical cancer.

Published in the International Journal of Cancer, the collaborative study was led by the Royal Women’s Hospital and Victorian Cytology Service, in partnership with expert cancer pathology laboratories in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Lead author Associate Professor Julia Brotherton, Medical Director of Australia’s National HPV Vaccination Program Register said the findings were “great news for our daughters and all young Australian women”.

“This study highlights that the new HPV vaccine yet to be released in Australia could prevent over 90 per cent of cervical cancers, which is an incredibly exciting prospect,” Prof Brotherton said.

Director of the Royal Women’s Hospital Centre for Infectious Diseases and study senior author Professor Suzanne Garland said the research confirmed that girls who are vaccinated against HPV with the new vaccine should have a very high level of protection against cervical cancer, and that one day this could potentially mean women need to screen less often.

“The biggest message is: we must have high coverage of the vaccine to prevent the HPV infection that causes cervical cancer,” Prof Garland said.

“The new vaccine still protects against genital warts but is expanded to cover the seven most common viral types that cause cervical cancer. I do believe that if we continue with this high coverage of vaccination, we could almost wipe out cervical cancer in women.”

The outcome of a Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) review of the new vaccine is scheduled for release mid-August. If recommended, the vaccine could become part of the National HPV Vaccination Program as early as next year.

“Thus the future is very bright for the next generation of women in Australia,” Prof Brotherton said.

Background notes:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that are extremely common worldwide.
  • There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which at least 13 are cancer-causing (also known as high risk type).
  • Cervical cancer is caused by sexually acquired infection with certain types of HPV.
  • There is also evidence linking HPV with cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina and penis.
  • Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women living in less developed regions with an estimated 445,000 new cases in 2012 (84% of the new cases worldwide).
  • In 2012, approximately 270,000 women died from cervical cancer; more than 85 per cent of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.
    Vaccines against HPV 16 and 18 have been approved for use in many countries.

Source: World Health Organisation

The Royal Women’s Hospital is Australia’s largest specialist hospital dedicated to improving the health of women of all ages and newborn babies.

The Victorian Cytology Service (VCS) is a health promotion charity with a vision to prevent cancer and infectious disease through excellence in the provision of public health services supporting screening and vaccination.

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(03) 8345 2028 or (03) 8345 2921.