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HPV vaccine slashes cervical cancer rates across society

Tim Gunn
by Tim Gunn | News

16 May 2024

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An unrecognisable young girl receiving a vaccination.

The NHS HPV vaccination programme is preventing the highest number of cervical cancer cases in the most deprived groups, according to our latest study of data from England.

The findings, which reflect the fact that more deprived groups have higher rates of cervical cancer, show that the HPV vaccine is reaching people from all backgrounds.

In 2021, the same research team, led by Professor Peter Sasieni, found that offering the HPV vaccine to girls aged between 12 and 13 prevents almost 9 in 10 cervical cancers. Still, some scientists had been concerned that differing levels of vaccine uptake could be increasing cervical cancer inequalities.

There’s more work to do to address those inequalities, but it’s now clear the HPV vaccine is a big part of the solution. Sasieni’s team at Queen Mary University of London estimates that it has prevented more than three times as many cases in the most deprived group in England (around 190) than in the least (around 60).

Our research highlights the power of HPV vaccination to benefit people across all social groups.

Historically, cervical cancer has had greater health inequalities than almost any other cancer and there was concern that HPV vaccination may not reach those at the greatest risk. Instead, this study captures the huge success of the school-based vaccination programme in helping to close these gaps and reach people from even the most deprived communities.

In the UK, the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem in our lifetime is possible with continued action to improve access to vaccination and screening for all.

- Professor Peter Sasieni, lead author, from Queen Mary University of London

More work to do to prevent cervical cancer

Around 3,300 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK every year.* Research has shown that the HPV vaccine, combined with cervical screening, can bring that number right down.  

However, the percentages of eligible people receiving an HPV vaccine and attending screening have both fallen in the wake of the COVID pandemic.  

And, although this research shows that the HPV vaccine is preventing cervical cancer in all socioeconomic groups, rates are still higher in people from deprived backgrounds. 

That’s why we’re calling on the government to do more to ensure that as many young people as possible get the HPV vaccination. We’re also pushing for better reporting on uptake by deprivation and ethnicity, along with more research, to help us understand how to reach those most at risk. 

Our scientists helped to prove the link between HPV and cervical cancer 25 years ago. That discovery made it clear that we could use HPV vaccines to prevent cervical cancer. It also helped improve cervical cancer screening.

Thanks to these scientific developments, cervical cancer rates in the UK have fallen by almost a third since the early 1990s.**

Who is eligible for the HPV vaccine?

After decades of research, the HPV vaccination programme was first introduced for girls aged 12-13 in England in 2008. Since September 2019, the vaccine has also been available to boys of the same age. Anyone who missed their vaccine can request it through the NHS up to the age of 25.  

The vaccine is also available to men who have sex with men and some transgender people up to the age of 45 through sexual health and HIV clinics. 

We encourage people to take up the HPV vaccine if they are eligible. If you are concerned that you or your child has missed out on the HPV vaccine, you can contact your child’s school nurse, school immunisation service or GP surgery to find out more.

- Sophia Lowes, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK

Gem’s story

36-year-old Gem Sofianos, from London, found out that she had cervical cancer after a screening appointment in 2015.

The HPV vaccination programme launched after Gem had left school. Now she’s a strong advocate that eligible people should take up the offer of the vaccine, as well as cervical screening.

Gem said: “If I had been offered the vaccine when I was younger, I wouldn’t have hesitated to take it up. My younger sister was given the HPV vaccine in the first rollout at school. It gives me comfort knowing that she and others are protected against HPV, and therefore less likely to develop cervical cancer.”

Gem Sofianos

Gem was 28 when she was diagnosed. “I was young and healthy and hadn’t experienced any symptoms, so to be told I had cervical cancer took me completely by surprise. It was a lot to take in.”

Because Gem’s cancer was caught early, she had surgery a month later and the treatment was successful. Gem is now free from cancer, but she still attends regular screening.

“I still suffer from the aftermath of my diagnosis,” she said, “and I hope one day we live in a world where cervical cancer is eliminated. With advances in research and more people getting the HPV vaccine, this could be a reality.”

* Based on the average annual number of new cases of cervical cancer (ICD10 C53) diagnosed in the United Kingdom in the years 2017-2019.

* Based on the percentage change in incidence rates from 14 cases per 100,000 women in the UK between 1991-1993 to 10 cases per 100,000 women between 2017-2019.

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