User Menu

Women who have HPV vaccine may need fewer cervical screenings – study

Since 2010, HSE has offered vaccine to all girls in first year in secondary schools

Women who have been given the HPV cervical cancer (HPV) vaccine may only need three cervical screenings in their lifetime, a study in England has said.

Researchers found that smear tests at the ages of 30, 40 and 55 could offer the same benefit to vaccinated women from the human papillomavirus as the 12 currently offered.

HPV is thought to cause nearly all cervical cancers and a vaccination against it has been offered to girls in the UK aged 11 to 13 since 2008.

In Ireland, the HSE has offered the HPV vaccine to all girls in first year in secondary schools since 2010, on the grounds that it is best to give the vaccine during those years.

The vaccine is recommended by the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

There is strong evidence of the beneficial impact of the HPV vaccine for women’s health in countries that have had high uptake rates, and Minister for Health Simon Harris said recently that “this is a vaccine that can and is saving lives’.

However, the HPV vaccine has been criticised by some groups and individuals, leading to some deciding against allowing their children to receive it.

Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard said he was greatly concerned by the negative publicity regarding HPV vaccination in recent months.

He said the rate of the uptake of the vaccine in Ireland had dropped in recent years. In 2013, the rate was 88 per cent, but it had dropped to 86 per cent in 2014 and to 76 per cent in 2015.

It then dropped to just 50 per cent in the 2016 school year.

The Cancer Research UK-funded team at Queen Mary University of London said that cutting the number of screenings for vaccinated women could save the national health services’ time and money.

Prof Peter Sasieni, Cancer Research UK’s screening expert and lead author of the study, said: “These women are far less likely to develop cervical cancer so they don’t need such stringent routine checking as those at a higher risk.

“This decision would free up resources for where they are needed most. The change in the screening system is a unique opportunity to reassess how often women are invited for cervical screens during their lifetimes.”

The vaccine for HPV protects women against the most dangerous forms of the virus – which will infect most people at some point – and significantly reduces the chance of developing cervical cancer.

The study also suggests that women who are not vaccinated should only need seven lifetime screens when the new screening test comes in, five fewer than is currently standard in the UK.

Anti-vaccination campaign group

It emerged last month that Independent TD Finian McGrath made representations to Mr Harris on behalf of anti-vaccination campaign group Regret while he was junior minister for health, questioning the HPV cervical cancer vaccine.

Internal emails show Mr McGrath brought concerns over the side effects of the HPV vaccine to Mr Harris three times between August 2016 and July this year. In late August 2016, Mr McGrath sent documentation from the Regret group to Mr Harris.

Finian McGrath TD.

girls had developed chronic ill health due to the vaccine, that included “regular seizures, daily headaches, joint pain, loss of feeling in limbs, muscle weakness”. The internal correspondence was obtained under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

Along with the literature, Mr McGrath requested “a response to the concerns about the HPV vaccine Gardasil”, and told his Cabinet colleague the number of girls adversely affected by the vaccine in the Regret group “seems to be rising”.

Gardasil is the drug used by the HSE in the cervical cancer vaccination programme provided to girls in the first year of secondary school. It protects against 70 per cent of cancers of the cervix, which are caused by strains of the HPV virus.

Regret are a group representing 450 young girls and their parents who say the girls developed medical conditions and suffered adverse side effects after receiving the HPV vaccine.

In an email this July Mr McGrath asked Minister for Health Simon Harris to respond to his “representation for the support group Regret about the HPV Gardasil vaccine”.

In reply Mr Harris said the Gardasil vaccine was approved for use by the European Medicines Agency, and over time will save the lives of 60 girls in Ireland each year.

“The use of unvalidated information may cause harm to those unvaccinated children and adults who develop vaccine preventable disease”, he told Mr McGrath.

Between September 2010 (when the immunisation programme was introduced in secondary schools) and May 2017, the Health Products Regulation Authority (HPRA) has received 1,091 reports of adverse reactions to the Gardasil drug.

Around 230,000 girls have received the full vaccine course, and 650 girls received medical treatment following the vaccine, the vast majority of which was for “transient” side effects such as fainting or nausea, according to the HPRA.