Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix (the entrance to the womb). It is caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. Cervical cancer can be very serious and around 1,000 women die of it in the UK each year.
The virus is very common and you catch it by being sexually active with another person who already has the virus. Because it is so common most people will get infected at some point in their lifetime. Most of the time the virus does not cause cancer as it is killed off by the body’s immune system, but not always – this is why the vaccine is so important.
The HPV vaccine
The vaccine protects against two types of the HPV virus that cause most (over 70%) of the cases of cervical cancer. You will need three injections over several months to get the best protection. Having the vaccine won’t protect you from other STIs like Chlamydia and it won’t stop you from getting pregnant.
Who can have the vaccine?
From September 2008 girls aged between 12 and 13 in school were offered the HPV vaccine. Older school girls will also be offered the vaccine over the next couple of years. Your parents or carers will be contacted when it is time for your vaccination.
Do I still need to get a cervical screening test (a ‘smear test’) if I’ve had the HPV vaccine?
Yes, when you reach 25 years you will receive a letter from your GP explaining the test in more detail and inviting you to make an appointment. If you had the HPV vaccine at 13 years old then you are at lower risk (up to 70% less) but the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV so there is still a chance that women will develop cervical cancer. Although a ‘catch-up’ vaccination is being offered to teenagers over the age of 13 years, the vaccine is less effective once HPV exposure has already occurred. Screening will pick up any changes early on when they can be easily treated. See the NHS website for more information: http://www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk/cervical
Why are Women aged less than 25 years not offered cervical screening?
In 2004, the age for women to be invited for cervical screening was raised from 20 to 25 years. This was because doctors and experts realised that changes seen in younger women were often normal and that some women were being treated and worried unnecessarily. It is very rare to develop cancer below the age of 25 and the harm and worry of having the tests is no longer considered to be greater than the benefits in women of this age. You should always be aware of any symptoms such as: bleeding between periods or after sex, pain during sex or an unpleasant discharge. If you experience any of these you should discuss them with a doctor or nurse immediately.
If you are aged 12-18 and not in school you can still get the vaccine by asking your GP.
For more information visit www.nhs.uk/conditions/HPV-vaccination/Pages/Introduction.aspx
or telephone the Patient Advisory Liaison Service on 0117 900 3433.