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6 articles to clue you up on HPV, vaccines, and cervical cancer prevention

Jacob Smith
by Jacob Smith | Analysis

22 January 2024

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Stained cervical cells viewed under the microscope
Shutterstock - Konsam Loonprom


Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are preventable. 

In 2020, the World Health Organisation announced an ambitious plan to create a ‘cervical cancer-free future’. If we succeed, cervical cancer will become the first cancer to be ‘eliminated’ on this scale so almost no one gets it. 

This week (22-28 January) is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and to recognise that, we’re focussing on how, with research and a combination of vaccination and screening, we can make cervical cancer a thing of the past. 

We’ve rounded up some of our most useful content on cervical cancer, from research in the lab to screening in the clinic, to get you up to date on how we can prevent cervical cancer. 

1. Common questions about HPV answered 

Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a link we helped to prove in the 1990s. 

That might sound worrying, but it’s important to remember that although HPV can cause some types of cancer, having HPV doesn’t mean you have or will definitely get cancer. 

Electron microscopy image of HPV
Electron microscopy image of HPV

In fact, most of us will have HPV at some point in our lifetime without it causing any harm and a lot of the time without us knowing. 

While HPV might not be the most comfortable topic of conversation, we know that you may have questions about it.  

So, we’ve answered some of the most common questions our nurses have been asked about HPV. 

2. Understanding HPV in screening 

Cervical screening is one of 3 cancer screening programmes in the UK. It is offered to most women, some trans men and non-binary people with a cervix, aged 25 to 64. 

Screening involves testing apparently healthy people without symptoms. It can save lives by finding cancers at an early stage, or even in the case of cervical cancer, preventing them. 

In the UK, cervical screening is done using HPV primary testing, which tests the sample of cervical cells for HPV first. The laboratory will look to see if you have a high-risk type of the virus. If high-risk HPV is found, the laboratory will test your sample for abnormal cell changes. 

But last year, a study we funded revealed a gap in many women’s understanding of HPV and its role in cervical screening, which could impact on how many people choose to attend their cervical screening appointments. 

3. 3- vs 5-year screening intervals 

In England and Northern Ireland, if you’re eligible for cervical screening you’ll be invited every 3 years. However, in Scotland and Wales, you may be invited every 5 years if you’re lower risk. So why the difference? 

In short, it’s thanks to research. 

In 2022, a study confirmed that offering cervical screening using HPV testing effectively prevents cervical cancer without the need for as regular screening.    

Alongside the results of previous research, the study showed that the time interval between cervical screens can be safely extended for those who test negative for HPV. Those who are higher risk will be invited more often. We’re hoping to see England and Northern Ireland follow suit. 

YouScreen self-sampling kit
YouScreen self-sampling kit

4. What are self-sampling tests?

We’ve already covered why cervical screening is so important, but we know that for some people, attending an appointment can have several barriers.

Results from a first-of-its-kind study have revealed that around 50% of women eligible for cervical screening would prefer self-sampling, when the patient takes their own sample, over being tested by a clinician if they were offered information and a choice. 

This may be particularly important for those who have not attended cervical screening so far. HPV testing of self-collected samples may help to reduce inequalities in cervical screening uptake in specific groups of individuals, so what do we know about self-sampling? 

 5. Preventing cervical cancer with vaccines

So, we know that HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer, and that we can test for HPV via screening. But, as you may know, there’s also a way we can protect against people getting HPV in the first place: vaccination. 

HPV vaccination has been offered in the UK since 2008, and in 2022, researchers we funded published a landmark study.  

The study found that the HPV vaccine was shown to dramatically reduce cervical cancer rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at ages 12 to 13. 

“It’s a huge achievement by lots and lots of people. It’s nice to think that this next generation will probably never really have to worry about cervical cancer in this country,” said Professor Peter Sasieni, who led the team at Kings College London. 

6. The vaccination of a generation

Globally, cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer in women.  

And despite studies like the one above showing that vaccination programmes reduce cervical cancer rates dramatically, there are still countries that don’t have universally accessible programmes. 

In the first series of our podcast, we heard from Dr Ishu Kataria, whose work into non-communicable diseases led her to work with the UN and WHO.  

She and her team are working out how to get the HPV vaccine to more than 70 million girls aged between 9 and 14 in India. 

 

If you want to learn more about cervical cancer, symptoms, screening, and treatments visit our About Cancer pages.  

Or, if you have questions about cancer, you can reach out to Cancer Research UK’s nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. Alternatively, if you’d like to chat online with other people affected by cancer, you can join our fully moderated online community Cancer Chat at http://www.cancerchat.org.uk  

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