Vaccine could wipe out cervical cancer within 50 years

Cervical cancer could be eradicated within five decades by screening and vaccination programmes, a leading expert said yesterday.

Professor Jack Cuzick called on European governments to spearhead a concerted effort to make the disease disappear. Currently vaccines exist that can protect women against two strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer.

These alone had the potential to eradicate three quarters of cancers, said Prof Cuzick, from the Cancer Research UK Centre for Epidemiology in London.

But new vaccines now in development that will be effective against all nine strains of the virus raised the prospect of wiping out the disease entirely within 50 years.

"If they are successful, there should be no need to screen women that have been vaccinated at all," Prof Cuzick told a European cancer conference in Berlin. "That's the long term future: vaccination and no screening. After about 50 years, we could see cervical cancer disappearing."

For the time being, vaccinated women would still require screening for the rest of their lives, he said, as the vaccine was not effective in women who had already been exposed to the virus. He said it was important to replace the traditional "Pap" smear test, which looks for abnormal cervical cells, with automated screening for the HPV.

There was "overwhelming" evidence HPV screening was more effective than smear tests, said Prof Cuzick. The Pap test missed an estimated third to a half of all high-grade abnormal cells.

He said the European Union and national governments should take the lead on discussions about implementing screening and vaccination programmes rather than relying on pharmaceutical companies.

"One of the most useful things the EU could do would be to provide a forum for the dissemination of knowledge about the role of HPV both to doctors and to the general public," said Prof Cuzick. "It could sponsor a major symposium to discuss HPV testing, vaccination and the best strategies for implementing programmes in member countries. There's been a lot of concern, particularly with the vaccine, that dissemination of information about HPV has come mainly from the drug companies, and people are, not surprisingly, a little sceptical of pharmaceutical-based education programmes.

"So if the EU was to take this up without pharmaceutical support, I think it would be very appropriate and it would provide a forum that would be extremely legitimate."

He pointed out that although it was more expensive, HPV testing could be carried out less frequently than the three-yearly Pap test.

Younger women of 25 to 30 could have the test at five-year intervals which could be extended to eight years by the age of 50.