Australia Is On Track To Eliminate Cervical Cancer By 2035

After free school programs have seen young people vaccinated against HPV, infected rates have been reduced by 92 per cent.

For those who can remember vaccination days at school, the HPV vaccination was one that hurt. Where others felt like a tiny prick, this one you could feel for days after, yet the collective mood was one of positivity. Prior to the vaccine, it was estimated that up to 90 per cent of Australians were infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point, which causes almost all cervical cancers as well as a range of other cancers. Thanks to the free school vaccination program, which began in 2007, infection rates of HPV have been reduced by 92 per cent and now, Australia is on track to eliminating cervical cancer altogether

Experts are “highly optimistic” that the disease can be eliminated in a little more than a decade. If that’s the case, Australia will become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer by its target date of 2035. 

While many thought the pandemic would put a halt to vaccination rates, as well as recent interference from “highly religious” schools, rates have instead been stable and slowly rising according to the executive director of the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer, Professor Marion Saville. She added, “Despite the pandemic, we’re seeing pretty good coverage.”

For those who missed out on the vaccine at school, Saville has stressed that it’s not too late to get the vaccine. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee now recommends the vaccination be available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for men and women up to 25 years of age. Saville explained: “We see people who’ve been to Opus Dei schools who weren’t vaccinated…That may also be true for highly religious schools.” 

Saville added, “To people who might have been at Opus Dei and told the vaccine wasn’t for them, they should have a conversation with their practitioner. We’re hoping the minister will approve the PBAC recommendation so they can have a funded vaccination up to the age of 25.”

According to Professor Karen Canfell, director of the Daffodil Centre, a joint venture between Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney, what Australia has achieved is extraordinary and provides a blueprint for other nations when it comes to public health innovations on HPV. “From a national screening program to vaccination, then the second generation vaccines, then changing to HPV screening, and now cervical sample self collection,” she expressed. 

Canfell has stressed that equity is imperative when it comes to Australia meeting its target, as access to such lifesaving interventions need to be available to everyone. “It’s really important to communicate well that the vaccine is the best intervention for females under the age of 25 and cervical screening is the best intervention for women over 25, and even in that age group it’s important to have HPV screening, even if they’ve been vaccinated,” said Canfell. 

When there is only a four in 100,000 chance of invasive cancer, that’s when cervical cancer will be considered to be eliminated as a public health problem. 

Everything You Need To Know About Cervical Cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix. The most common cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for 70 per cent of cases. It’s estimated that more than 900 people were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2022, with the average age of diagnosis being 49 years old. 

What are symptoms of cervical cancer?

What makes cervical cancer hard to detect is that changes in cervical cells are rarely shown in symptoms. You need to have a cervical screening test to determine if you have cervical cancer, but if early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, some common symptoms include:

  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Menstrual bleeding that is longer or heavier than usual
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Pelvic pain
  • A change in vaginal discharge such as more discharge or it may have a strong or unusual colour or smell
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with some high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV remains the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer, with the other risk being smoking. According to the Cancer Council, there is also some evidence that women who have taken the contraceptive pill for five years or more are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer in people with HPV. But as the organisation stresses, the risk is small and the pill has been shown to reduce risk of other cancers such as ovarian and uterine. 

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