Business & Finance
Australia set to eliminate cervical cancer by 2035 thanks to vaccination and screening
4 October 2018 -

Cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina) and most cases are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection.

It's the fourth most frequent cancer in women, with an estimated 570,000 new cases in 2018 representing 6.6% of all female cancers, according to the World Health Organization.

Around nine in ten deaths from cervical cancer occur in low- and middle-income countries, but a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, early diagnosis, effective screening and treatment programmes could significantly reduce the global mortality rate from cervical cancer.

The effectiveness of targeting the disease in this way can be seen in Australia, which is set to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer following the success of its HPV vaccination programme and changes to the country's national screening programme.

The vaccine protects against common cancer-causing types of HPV.

New research from the charity Cancer Council New South Wales (NSW) suggests that if vaccination and screening coverage are maintained at their current rates, cervical cancer is likely to be eliminated as a public health issue in the country within 20 years.

The findings, published in The Lancet Public Health, indicate that cervical cancer rates will drop to less than 6 in 100,000 by 2022 -- meaning that it will soon be considered a rare cancer. Rates will continue to drop further, falling below 4 in 100,000 by 2035.

Australia transitioned to a new five-yearly HPV cervical screening test for those aged 25-74 from last year, replacing the old two-yearly Pap test previously offered from ages 18-69 years. The new test, which looks for the presence of HPV rather than cell changes in the cervix, is expected to lower cervical cancer cases and mortality by at least 20%.

Professor Karen Canfell, director of research at Cancer Council NSW, said: "To achieve elimination, it's vital that women continue to participate in the National Cervical Screening Program and that girls and boys are vaccinated against HPV through the national HPV immunisation program. Under the new screening programme, women should have their first screening test at age 25 and then every five years, if no high risk HPV is detected.

"Those who have previously had the Pap test should have their next cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test, after which point they can move to five-yearly screening."

The WHO has not yet established a definition of when cervical cancer becomes so uncommon it is deemed eliminated.

"Regardless of what the [elimination] threshold is, it is likely Australia would be the first country to reach it given our current low rate of cervical cancer, and our strong prevention programmes," Dr Megan Smith, a researcher from Cancer Council NSW, told BBC News.