All girls in Europe should be immunized against the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer and current vaccine coverage rates are far too low, European Union health officials said on Wednesday.
In new advice about tackling the virus, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that while 19 out of 29 countries in the region had introduced HPV vaccine programs, vaccination rates were as low as 17 percent in some.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide, with about 500,000 new cases and 250,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Virtually all cases are linked to genital infection with HPV, the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract.
British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline and U.S. rival Merck & Co make the only two HPV vaccines licensed for use in Europe.
Merck’s Gardasil targets four strains of HPV - two responsible for cervical cancer and two that cause the less serious condition of genital warts - while GSK’s Cervarix shot targets only the two cancer strains.
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control.
Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even
if it spreads to other body parts later. When cancer starts in the cervix,
it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the
uterus. The cervix connects the vagina (the birth canal) to the upper
part of the uterus. The uterus (or the womb) is where a baby grows
when a woman is pregnant.
Cervical cancer is preventable with regular screening tests and followup. It also is highly curable when found and treated early. Although
cervical cancer occurs most often in women over age 30, all women
are at risk for cervical cancer. Each year approximately 12,000 women
are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,000 women die from the
The ECDC said that in 2010, only Portugal and Britain had vaccination coverage rates above 80 percent for the target groups of girls aged between about 10 and 14 years.
It urged health authorities to step up their efforts to get more girls vaccinated, saying recent research studies had shown the shots to be safe and effective, as well as cost-effective.
“We public health authorities, frontline healthcare workers and parents alike have a shared responsibility to protect thousands of women from cervical cancer,” said Marc Sprenger, the ECDC’s director.
How can I prevent cervical cancer?
There are many ways to prevent or reduce your risk for cervical cancer:
- Get the HPV vaccine. It protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers, and is recommended for girls and women aged 11 through 26
- See your doctor regularly for a Pap test to find cervical precancerous cells
- Follow up with your doctor if your Pap test results are not normal
- Don’t smoke
- Use condoms during sex**
- Limit your number of sexual partners
** HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. While the effect of condoms in preventing HPV infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.