School vaccination program effective against cervical pre-cancer

Women who received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in Grade 6 as part of the province’s publicly funded school immunization program had a 57 per cent reduction in the rate of cervical pre-cancer, according to a recent study.

Using data from BC’s cervical screening and immunization registries, researchers compared the rates of precancerous outcomes between women who had been vaccinated and those who hadn’t.

They focused on women born between 1994 and 2005 who had received the vaccine at age nine or later.

The joint study was published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases by researchers at UBC, BC Cancer, the BC Center for Disease Control and the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.

HPV is so common that most people will become infected at some point. Usually, the infection goes away on its own, but in some cases it can cause changes in cells that make them more likely to turn into cancer, called precancerous lesions. These changes can be detected in the cervix by a pap smear.

HPV is responsible for most cervical cancers.

“The dramatic success — pre-cancer rates dropping by over half — shows us the importance of having children immunized early to protect their lives,” said BC Minister of Education Rob Fleming in a press release.

One of the study’s authors agrees with his assessment.

“Totally. Yes. We have a vaccine that is preventing pre-cancerous lesions that we know lead to cancer,” said School of Population and Public Health Professor Dr. Gina Ogilvie.

She expects that as more children are vaccinated, both pre-cancer and cervical cancer rates will continue to decline.

The school-based program began in 2008. The women in the study received the quadrivalent vaccine, known to be effective against 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Today’s Grade 6 students receive a different version of the vaccine, which protects against 90 per cent of cervical cancers.

For Ogilvie, 57 is more than a number.

“We have a vaccine that’s going to prevent cancer. So there’s the human side of that, not losing loved ones early,” she said.

“And then at a system level, we don’t have to spend and direct our resources to things like cancer treatments. We can use that money to do other things. It’s a massive opportunity for us and we’re very fortunate to have access to this vaccine in Canada.”