Eliminating cervical cancer – a reality?

3 October 2018 | Professor Karen Canfell

Eliminating cancer has long seemed an unobtainable goal – but we are close to seeing that dream become reality for one of the world’s most common cancers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently called for international action to eliminate cervical cancer, which is viewed as a highly preventable cancer. New results from our team at Cancer Council NSW predict that Australia could potentially eliminate cervical cancer by 2035 – the first country in the world to do so. Published today in Lancet Public Health in collaboration with the VCS Foundation and Ian Frazer, the findings will be presented at the International Papillomavirus Conference in Sydney this week.

Dramatic impact of HPV vaccination and screening

Our research considers that Australia has benefited from being the first country in the world to introduce a national public HPV vaccination program and since last year is also performing HPV-based cervical screening in unvaccinated and vaccinated women from the age of 25 years.

The combined impact of these interventions will be dramatic. We predict that cervical cancer rates could drop to less than 6 in 100,000 by 2022 – meaning that cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide and the most common cause of cancer death in many sub-Saharan countries, will soon be classified as a rare cancer in Australia.

Rates will continue to drop to below 4 in 100,000 and the associated mortality will fall below 1 per 100,000 women. Although the threshold for eliminating cervical cancer as a public health issue has not yet been set by the WHO, these findings indicate that even at very low thresholds, Australia is set to eliminate cervical cancer in the next 20 years. Other high income countries are likely to follow within the next few decades.

What does this mean for Australian women?

This is very exciting news for women across Australia, but it’s important to remember that elimination is only likely if HPV vaccination and screening continue at their current rates. It’s vital that girls and boys are vaccinated against HPV through the national HPV immunisation program.

Under the new National Cervical Screening Program, 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 first cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test, after which point they can move to five-yearly screening.

Where can I get more information?

To learn more about Australia’s cervical screening program, visit Cancer Council’s new website www.cervicalscreening.org.au. If you still have questions, you can call Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 Information and Support Line and speak to a specially trained health professional for free.