Many young women will remember lining up in school yards to get a vaccine in the early years of school. One of these vaccines was the Gardasil HPV vaccine, which was introduced to Australia’s National Immunisation Program in 2007.
Australia was the first country to roll out a national HPV program, and it’s had a huge impact on rates of the virus in the community.
The statistics say it all. Prior to the vaccine being widely administered it is believed that HPV infected up to 90 per cent of Australians. With the free vaccinations being provided in school, the HPV infection rate has dropped by 92 per cent.
Given that HPV is the virus responsible for most cervical cancers, this has in turn had a huge effect on the rate of changes to the squamous and glandular cells in the cervix that are hallmarks of potential cancers.
This, combined with a routine schedule of cervical cancer PAP smears has put Australia on track to eradicate the virus entirely.
How will we eliminate cervical cancer in Australia?
According to the World Health Organisation’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer, it will only be considered ‘eliminated’ when there is a threshold of 4 per 100,000 women diagnosed.
They have set a range of targets to get us there, with ideally 90 per cent of girls fully vaccinated with Gardasil by the age of 15, 70 per cent of women screened by 35 and again and 45 years of age, and the assurance that 90 per cent of the women who get diagnosed with cervical changes receive treatment, including those with precancerous cells.
In Australia, the vaccine is free for anyone aged 12 to 25 and a 2019 study found that around 80 per cent of women in Australia had had the jab.
Professor Karen Canfell, director of the Daffodil Centre (a collaboration between the University of Sydney and the Cancer Council), told The Guardian that it was an exciting time for Australia when it comes to the topic of cervical cancer prevention.
However, she believes it’s important that we continue to communicate that vaccine intervention is best at a young age, and screening best for elder women.
“It’s really important to communicate well that the vaccine is the best intervention for females under the age of 25 and cervical screening is the best intervention for women over 25, and even in that age group it’s important to have HPV screening, even if they’ve been vaccinated,” she said.
At the moment it appears that Australia is on track to eliminate cervical cancer by 2035.
Plus, it’s only about to get easier
ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) has made a new recommendation that just one dose of Gardasil9 will provide ‘comparable protection’ as two doses.
This applies only to patients who are not immunocompromised. As we learnt from Covid (and it is the same for HPV) less people come back for their second dose. From February 6 that will no longer be considered a problem when it comes to Australia’s effort to eradicate cervical cancer.
Currently the vaccine is only funded up to 25, but older women (up to 45) can get the vaccine if they pay for it, along with males (up to 26).
The vaccine will also be given in schools for Year 7’s in all states except for SA and WA, where it is given in year 8.
Why do some people not get the HPV vaccination?
It’s important to remember that HPV does not discriminate, and can impact anyone who is sexually active even if they only partake rarely or once.
Yet there is some push back against the vaccine. Some occurs from anti-vaxxers, but also from highly religious organisations. Four Corners recently aired an episode about an Opus-Dei affiliated school that discouraged its children from getting the vaccine. The program reports that they believe the vaccine promotes promiscuity.
Following the program New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet urged the state’s education authority to investigate the claims.
Perrottet himself was educated and became a school captain at Redfield College, which is also an Opus Dei affiliated school.