Cancer Council NSW research indicates HPV vaccination program could have prevented over 2000 premature births

New research by Cancer Council NSW has indicated that the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine could have further-reaching benefits than preventing HPV and cervical cancer, also potentially lowering the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes (APOs) in vaccinated women. The study indicates that the HPV vaccine could have lowered the risk of preterm births (PTBs) by 3.2% in Australia and small for gestational age (SGA) infants by 9.8%. This means that the National HPV Vaccination Program could have prevented over 2000 premature births since its inception in 2007.

HPV infection is known to cause the vast majority of cervical cancers. Routine cervical screening through the National Cervical Screening Program protects women against cervical cancer by detecting the presence of HPV and abnormal precancerous changes to the cervix so they can be readily treated.

While essential for preventing cervical cancer and saving lives, treatment of some precancerous abnormalities has been linked with a very small increased risk of APOs. One possible reason for the new study’s findings is that the drop in HPV infections, precancerous abnormalities and rates of cervical cancer treatment procedures – which are all attributed to HPV vaccination – has resulted in a reduced overall risk of APOs for vaccinated women.

Professor Karen Canfell, Director of Research at Cancer Council NSW, welcomes the findings and hopes they will further encourage parents to have their kids vaccinated against HPV.

“These findings add to the weight of evidence behind the benefits of the HPV vaccine. Our past research has found that, over the next 15 years, Australia’s national HPV vaccine and cervical screening program will avert more than 2000 cases of cervical cancer and save about 600 women’s lives” said Professor Karen Canfell.

“As well as preventing cervical and other HPV-related cancers, these findings show the vaccine might also play a significant role in reducing the rates of adverse pregnancy outcomes and improving the quality of life for many women and children around the world.”

Through the National HPV Vaccination Program, girls and boys aged up to 19 can receive two doses of the HPV vaccine free of charge. Normally, the vaccine is routinely given in school-based programs at age 12-13, however this has been temporarily paused due to the COVID-19 crisis. Catch up measures for children who have missed their scheduled vaccination during this period are expected to be put in place when it is safe to do so. Cancer Council recommends that parents speak to their family doctor if they have any concerns in the meantime.

“HPV vaccination and cervical screening are both critical to protecting Australian women against cervical cancer,” continued Professor Karen Canfell. “In 2007, Australia was the first country in the world to introduce a national public HPV vaccination program and in 2017, Australia transitioned to a new Cervical Screening Test which tests for the presence of HPV infection – this is the world’s best practice for cervical cancer prevention.

“Cervical screening is recommended every 5 years from the age of 25, and we recommend that women are screened whether or not they have been vaccinated against HPV.”

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