1 in 100 women in Europe will develop cervical cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause of cervical cancer. It is a highly contagious infection that is transmitted through sexual or skin-to-skin contact. Over three quarters of sexually active women get it at some point in their lives. There are over 100 types of HPV, but 2 – types 16 and 18 – cause 70% of cancers. The HPV vaccine is almost 100% effective in preventing the persistent HPV infections that cause cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer deaths falling in Europe
Thanks in part to more widespread cervical screening and improvements in treatment, deaths from cervical cancer have decreased over the past 30 years. During this period, the mortality rate has declined substantially for women of all ages (by 31%) and even more dramatically for women aged 65 years and above (by 48%). For women aged below 65, mortality rates fell more moderately (by 23%).
Despite these gains, today 1 in 25 000 women die from cervical cancer in the WHO European Region. It remains the second most common cancer among women aged 15–44. Given the technology and development levels in the Region, women have a right to be protected from this disease. Introducing the HPV vaccine more widely, in combination with cervical screening, has the potential to further lower mortality rates, particularly among younger women.
About the HPV vaccine
2 types of HPV vaccine are used in the European Region, and both prevent infection and disease from HPV types 16 and 18. The vaccine is given in a three-dose series. It has a good safety profile, having been tested on tens of thousands of people before being introduced.
Since the vaccine was approved, over 100 million doses have been distributed. Typically it is given to girls aged 11–12, as it is most effective when given before exposure to HPV: that is, before a girl becomes sexually active.
Introducing the HPV vaccine in Europe
So far, 21 countries in the WHO European Region have introduced the HPV vaccine. Of these, 7 (Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) have achieved coverage rates of 80% or more.
WHO/Europe provides technical support to help countries make evidence-based decisions on the introduction of the HPV vaccine, the evaluation of the cost of introducing the vaccine along with cervical cancer screening, and can assist in assessing the readiness of and strengthening school immunization programmes to administer HPV vaccinations.
WHO/Europe also assists countries in evaluating the introduction of HPV vaccine, and achieving and maintaining high coverage rates once it is part of routine vaccine programmes.
Through its Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety, WHO regularly reviews the safety of vaccines, including the HPV vaccine.
Coordinated approach to cervical cancer
WHO supports a comprehensive approach to preventing, detecting and treating cervical cancer. This requires providing effective interventions to women throughout their lives, starting in childhood. These interventions include community education, social mobilization, HPV vaccination, screening, treatment and palliative care. To achieve this, national health programmes (particularly for immunization, reproductive health, cancer control and adolescent health), organizations and partners must work together.
Cervical screening (the Pap test) is still needed for women who have been vaccinated, to help prevent the 30% of cervical cancers not targeted by the HPV vaccine.