France is launching a campaign of systematic screening for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. The country is also stepping up vaccinations of teenagers against HPV.
About 1,100 French women die annually of cervical cancer, and another 3,000 are diagnosed with the disease, which is preventable.
A statement by Dr Elisabete Weiderpass, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said that the HPV vaccination is "safe, efficacious and critical" in the fight against cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer among women, the IARC said. About 570,000 cases were diagnosed in the world last year, and 310,000 women died of the disease. The IARC says 460,000 women will have died annually by 2040 if more preventive measures are not implemented.
The French 2014-2019 cancer plan set an objective of vaccinating 60 per cent of all girls aged 11 to 14, but fewer than 20 per cent have been vaccinated, because of widespread distrust of the vaccination. The WHO recommends that all girls aged nine to 14 be vaccinated, before they commence sexual activity.
“Unfounded rumours hamper the increase of the vaccination, which is crucial for preventing cervical cancer,” Dr Weiderpass said.
France has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe. HPV also causes cancer of the anus, mouth, tongue, throat and uterus, and can be transmitted orally.
An estimated 70 per cent of men and women are exposed to the virus, but in most cases, the body eliminates it naturally.
Doctors warn that women should not stop having cervical smear tests after menopause. More than a third of new cases of cervical cancer in France strike women under the age of 50, but four in five deaths from the disease occur after age 50.
Vaccination and screening are the two main strategies for preventing cervical cancer. Seventeen million French women between the ages of 25 and 65 will receive letters through the post this month urging them to have a free smear test. Sixty per cent of French women have a cervical smear once every three years, as recommended by the WHO.
Women who do not respond will receive a follow-up letter one year later. The National Cancer Institute says 90 per cent of cervical cancer cases could be avoided with a smear test every three years.
The French High Health Authority (HAS) will decide later this year whether to vaccinate boys as well as girls against HPV. France's minister for health Agnès Buzyn says she is favourable to the measure, but will follow the HAS's recommendation. A US study in 2016 showed that men were twice as likely as women to contract cancer of the throat and mouth from HPV.
In an article published in the medical journal the Lancet last October, Australian doctors reported they expect to eradicate cervical cancer within a decade. Australia launched free vaccinations for 12- and 13-year-old girls in 2007, one year after the vaccine became available . The campaign was extended to boys of the same age in 2013.
Three-quarters of Australian teenagers are now vaccinated. As a result only 1.1 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 were infected with HPV in 2015, compared with 22.7 per cent in 2005. Scandinavian countries have also vaccinated a high percentage of teenagers and have seen a significant drop in cases of cervical cancer.