Minister committed to ensuring new HPV test delivered by year end

Creator of vaccine that ended cervical cancer in Australia to receive award in Ireland

Prof Ian Frazer to receive an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland for his work. Photograph:  Matt Kavanagh

Prof Ian Frazer to receive an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland for his work. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Preparations have intensified to ensure the introduction of a new HPV test by the end of the year following the cervical cancer screening crisis.

Minister for Health Simon Harris has “ensured extra resources are being deployed to work intensively on this”.

Mr Harris renewed his commitment to introduce the test as the joint creator of the HPV vaccine, which has effectively eliminated the cervical cancer virus in Australia, visits Dublin.

Prof Ian Frazer, head of the cancer immunology programme at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, is to receive an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland for his work.

He will also be the keynote speaker when the college marks eight years of the vaccine’s use in Ireland, at a conference on the practical aspects of the vaccine – Gardasil – and the implications of the cervical cancer screening controversy.

In Australia, testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) is already in place and was introduced because of the success of the cervical cancer immunisation programme.

Interviewed by The Irish Times before his arrival in Dublin, Prof Frazer said they were testing for the virus because “the rate of positive pap smears has now gone down to unmeasurably small levels in the age group that were actually vaccinated when the vaccine was first introduced back in 2007”.

It is expected to eradicate the virus by 2028 from all but those who recently immigrated into Australia.

Rate of uptake

The vaccine, Prof Frazer says, protects against nine strains of virus which are together responsible for more than 95 per cent of cervical cancers.

In Australia it is given to both girls and boys. “If the rate of uptake of the vaccine in girls starts to fall then the best way to mitigate the risk is to also vaccinate the boys”.

He said of the new HPV test: “We’re doing the same test on the woman. From her point of view it feels just the same but the sample is sent for virus testing and we only do it once every five years now.

“That’s sufficient because we know from the studies that have been done that even if there’s a bad virus here, even if there’s a HPV 16 [high risk virus] but there are no abnormal cells then there’ll not be any chance of a cancer developing in the next five years.”

They will carry on the screening even with women who have been vaccinated “until such time as we’ve proven that we don’t need to anymore”.

Most countries are switching to using HPV testing if they can afford it. “It’s slightly more expensive than the pap smear but it’s much more reliable,” said Prof Frazer.

One in a million

It is an automated machine test and while the sampling process is the same, “the accuracy of the test for finding the virus is potentially higher because it doesn’t rely on expert judgment. It relies on a machine.”

Vaccination rates in Ireland dropped alarmingly to 50 per cent after concerns about damaging side effects. A recent awareness campaign improved the rate to more than 60 per cent.

Prof Frazer said there was a one in a million incidence of a significant allergic reaction to the vaccine and in Australia “that amounted to two cases in the whole of the last 10 years and worldwide there’s been about 17 or 18 reported. And that’s an unpredictable allergic reaction, about the same you get with almost every vaccine.”

“Cervical cancer is the commonest cancer these viruses cause. Penile and anal cancers are also caused by these viral infections, but in men it will most commonly be cancers of the mouth and throat,” cancers women are also now contracting in increasing numbers.