This Cervical Cancer Prevention Week – UKHSA urges young people to catch up on any missed HPV vaccinations
The latest UKHSA report on the routine adolescent Human Papillomavirus (HPV) immunisation programme for 2021/22, which is primarily delivered in schools, shows that coverage in year 8 and year 9 pupils is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels across the country, including the West Midlands region.
The HPV vaccine is offered to all 12-13-year-olds in school years 8 and 9 and follows a two-dose schedule.
Nationally, HPV vaccine coverage decreased by 7% in year 8 girls and 8.7% in year 8 boys in 2021/22 when compared to the previous academic year. The data suggest that the NHS has already caught up many children who missed out on their HPV vaccine since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with dose 1 uptake improving for children in year 9 and year 10, but coverage remains below pre-pandemic levels.
The UK HPV Vaccination Programme is one of the most successful in the world, with high uptake and millions of doses given since its launch in 2008.
The Programme in England has been shown to have dramatically lowered rates of harmful infections and cervical cancer in vaccinated women, with the strongest effects seen in those vaccinated at younger ages and is saving lives. HPV vaccination also protects against genital warts and other cancers of the genital areas and anus, as well as some cancers of the head and neck.
Dr Mamoona Tahir, UKHSA West Midlands Health Protection Consultant leading on sexual health, said: “Immunisation programmes were disrupted by the pandemic, so it’s understandable that uptake of the HPV vaccine reduced during this time. In the year before Covid, almost 84% eligible students in England had received both doses of the HPV vaccine by the end of school year 9. With immunisation availability back to normal, it is worrying that the latest figures show that around 33% of girls and nearly 38% boys in year 9 were not fully protected against HPV in England, with coverage a little lower in the West Midlands. Even with mop up vaccinations available in year 10, 23% of girls and 29% of boys in the region had still not taken up their second dose of the vaccine.
“The HPV vaccine works best if young people get immunised before they come into contact with HPV, that is generally before they become sexually active. So, getting the vaccine when recommended will help protect them during their teenage years and beyond. If you miss either of your HPV vaccine doses, speak to your school immunisation team or GP surgery and make an appointment as soon as possible.”
A study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that cervical cancer rates were 87% lower in young women who had been eligible for HPV vaccination when they were aged 12 to 13 years, compared to similar young women born a few years earlier who had not been offered vaccination, clearly showing the Programme is preventing cervical cancers. Overall, the study estimated that the HPV Programme had prevented about 450 cancers and 17,200 pre-cancers up to mid-2019.
All the routine adolescent immunisation programmes have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and coverage is not back up to pre-pandemic levels.
UKHSA is urging parents and guardians to ensure eligible young people are caught up with their HPV vaccine before they leave school.
Dr Vanessa Saliba, Consultant Epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency said: “The HPV vaccine is available for girls and boys in year 8 and we encourage everyone eligible to take up this potentially life-saving vaccine when offered. In recent years we have seen vaccine coverage fall due to the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic. Many young people who missed out on their vaccinations have already been caught up, but more needs to be done to ensure all those eligible are vaccinated.
“Children and young people who have missed out on their HPV vaccinations should contact their school nurse, school immunisation team or GP surgery to arrange a catch-up – they remain eligible until their 25th birthday.”
In addition to HPV vaccination of young people, all women aged 25 and over in England are offered cervical screening which can detect early signs of disease and so also prevents cancers and deaths.
The HPV vaccine will prevent most cervical cancer cases, but not all, and so even vaccinated women should still attend for cervical screening when invited to do so. And if you’ve missed your appointment, it’s important you arrange another screening as soon as possible.
Minister for Women’s Health Maria Caulfield said: “As a nurse who has worked on cancer units, I have seen first-hand the importance of HPV vaccination in saving countless lives by preventing cervical cancer.
“We’re improving the cervical cancer screening process, including opening up 24/7 laboratory screening and expanding the location options available – so people can get their tests easier and results faster.
“I encourage all 12-13-year-olds who are offered this vaccine to take it - it could save your life.”
Samantha Dixon, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust: “We have the evidence that shows the HPV vaccine is stopping young women from developing cervical cancer, and that’s an incredible thing. Around 9 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every day in the UK and the vaccine is helping to change that. I’d urge anyone who is eligible to take up the offer. Whether you have been vaccinated or not, going for cervical screening remains important to help further reduce your risk of cervical cancer.”