Cervical cancer virus traces found in 15% of women screened

Only a small number of those testing positive had both subtypes linked to cervical disease

The HPV vaccine has the potential to avert 250-350 cervical cancer cases a year. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

The HPV vaccine has the potential to avert 250-350 cervical cancer cases a year. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

 

One in six women tested as part of a national screening programme had traces of the virus that causes cervical cancer, according to a new study.

However, only 5 per cent of the women who tested positive for the DNA of human papilloma virus (HPV) had the two subtypes associated with most cases of the disease.

Fifteen per cent of 6,000 women enrolled in the study tested positive for HPV DNA, according the interim results of a primary screening pilot funded by the Health Research Board.

Women under 30 were significantly more likely to test positive for HPV, with up to 25 per cent having the DNA of the virus.

There are over 100 different types of HPV and most are low-risk. However, some can cause cell changes in the cervix, especially where infections fail to clear.

John O’Leary, professor of pathology at Trinity College Dublin, said the finding on the prevalence of HPV was in line with similar studies done in other countries and was not a source of concern on health grounds.

Of those that tested positive for HPV, 4 per cent were positive for subtype-16 and 1 per cent were positive for subtype-18. These two subtypes are associated with 70 per cent of cervical cancers, and are specifically targeted by the HPV vaccine.

Smear test

The study is ongoing and will ultimately recruit 13,000 women attending for a routine CervicalCheck smear test.

Prof O’Leary said the HPV vaccine had the potential to avert 250-350 cervical cancer cases a year.

However, controversy over alleged side-effects of the vaccine, which is given to girls starting second-level education, has led to a fall in take-up rates, from a peak of over 80 per cent to just 50 per cent last winter.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee described the fall as being of grave concern and a significant threat to public health.

“Denying a young girl HPV vaccine increases the very real risk she might develop and even die from cervical cancer,” the committee said in a statement to mark National HPV Awareness Day on Friday.

Chairwoman Dr Karina Butler said it is important for parents to know that the earlier the vaccination was given, the better. “We encourage all parents to have their daughters complete the recommended schedule of HPV vaccines: a two-dose HPV vaccine series before age 15, or three doses in those older than 15.”