How the HPV vaccine can help end cervical cancer

The HPV vaccine is part of our National Immunisation Program. Find out how out it works, who it’s for, and what the recent change in dose schedule means.

Considering the link between infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the risk of developing a number of cancers, including cervical cancer, the approval of the first HPV vaccine in 2006 and the roll-out of Australia’s national HPV vaccination program a year later were important milestones.

In February this year, the dose schedule changed, so now is a good time to get up to speed with how HPV vaccination works – here’s what you need to know.

What does the HPV vaccine do?

The HPV vaccine that’s used in Australia’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) protects against nine types of HPV.

While there are over 100 types of HPV, and 40 known to affect the genital area, the vaccine protects against a mix of high-risk strains that can cause cancer and two low-risk types known to be the major causes of genital warts.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for young people aged nine to 25 years, and for anyone at higher risk of developing HPV-related diseases.

It’s offered through school-based vaccination programs to all Australian 12- to 13-year-olds.

Unfortunately, HPV vaccination rates amongst this age group have slid nationally since 2020.

“We know some children did not receive the HPV vaccine when recommended due to school disruptions over the course of the pandemic,” Queensland’s deputy chief health officer Dr Lynne McKinlay says.

“Australia is well on its way towards eliminating cervical cancer as a public health concern by 2035, and being the first country to do so, but our high HPV vaccination coverage levels need to be maintained to achieve this goal.”

Young people are eligible for a free catch-up HPV vaccine if they missed being vaccinated at school – talk to your GP for more information.

Can you get the HPV vaccine if you’re over 26?

Anyone can talk to their GP about getting vaccinated against HPV.

However, for the vaccine to work, it’s best given before a person comes into contact with HPV viruses.

As HPV spreads through sexual contact, that means the best time to be vaccinated is before someone becomes sexually active, in early adolescence.

People aged 25 years and under who have – or may already have had – an HPV infection are still advised to get their free vaccination via the NIP.

Does the HPV vaccine work?

The vaccine provides almost 100 per cent protection from the nine key HPV types when it’s given before someone has been infected with one of those HPVs.

Australian data shows that since the HPV vaccination program was launched, there’s been a decrease in HPV-related disease – genital warts, for example, have almost disappeared among young women aged under 21.

Cancer caused by HPV can take years to develop, so further studies are required to show how the vaccine reduces actual cancers.

So far, the results of a new study from Scotland, where a national HPV vaccination program began in 2008, are promising.

“This study involves every woman in Scotland who is eligible for the cervical cancer screening program and demonstrates the impact of the HPV vaccine in preventing cervical cancer,” study co-author Dr Kirsty Roy says.

“It shows how effective the HPV vaccine is as there have been no cervical cancer cases to date in fully vaccinated women who were given their first dose at age 12 to 13 years.”

How safe is the HPV vaccine?

It’s considered very safe.

More than 500 million doses have been given worldwide, and studies monitoring millions of people have shown there’s no increased risk of serious illness among those who’ve had the HPV vaccine.

Side effects are usually mild and temporary, and may include redness and pain at the injection site,  mild headache and mild nausea.

How much does the HPV vaccine cost?

It’s free for young people aged 12-13 who are vaccinated at school.

It’s also free, via a catch-up program, for people aged under 26 who missed being vaccinated at school.

Everyone else has to pay to get the HPV vaccine.

How many doses of the HPV vaccine do people need?

Following advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), the dosing schedule for the HPV vaccine changed in February 2023.

“The vaccine schedule change follows ATAGI’s review of recent international scientific and clinical evidence determining that a single dose of the HPV vaccine gives comparable protection to two doses – so most children are now protected after just one jab,” Dr McKinlay says.

However, young people who are immunocompromised are still advised to receive three HPV vaccine doses.

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Written by Karen Fittall.