Good news, gang: thanks to HPV vaccines, there now exists a generation which will not have to worry as much about certain kinds of cancer.
I almost – almost – headlined this ‘cancer is cured’ just to grab your attention, but I am not the Daily Express. Cancer caused by HPV is not technically ‘cured’ – as if there’ll only be one ‘cure for cancer’ and once it’s discovered everyone with a diagnosis will be issued with a special pill, and suddenly we’ll worry no more about it than we will about getting a mild tummy bug. Treating cancer involves a huge mix of different treatments, depending on the type. But it can be easy to get sucked in to the idea of a magic cure-all and miss some of the amazing developments that are genuinely making a difference to health outcomes. How about instead of curing cancer, we could prevent it?
That’s what the HPV vaccine programme has been seeking to do. And recently it was reported that, under the vaccination scheme, transmission of HPV has been virtually eliminated. That means almost zero new instances of HPV transmission in young people who have had the vaccine, and a good chance that cancers caused by HPV will be significantly reduced in the future. This is, by anyone’s standards, pretty fucking cool.
What is HPV?
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection which can be caught through sexual activity (including skin-to-skin contact) with someone. It’s a really really common one, so don’t go thinking ‘OMG if I have sex with someone who has HPV then I will definitely get this kind of cancer’ – most people who have it go about their lives never knowing, and never having any symptoms. Others might get occasional outbreaks of genital warts, though the strains of HPV that cause warts are not the same as the strains that have been linked to cancer. I’m frontloading all of this stuff so you don’t read this blog post and panic about your own sexual health. I am here to bring you good news, not scare the shit out of you like the aforementioned Daily Express.
Thing is, some strains of HPV can cause cancer. HPV16 and 18 are linked to the majority of cervical cancers as well as some oral, anal and penile cancers. While these cancers represent only a small percentage of the Big C total, they can still be absolutely fucking devastating. And now there is a generation that does not have to worry about these cancers in the same way.
When I read this news, I cried, and not just because I know amazing people who have been diagnosed with cancer linked to HPV and I would like for no one else to ever have to go through what they did, but also because in 2020 it’s rare to read news that is so genuinely, profoundly good. I want to hug the fuck out of every single scientist, health worker, parent, teenager, school and local authority who contributed to rolling out this vaccine programme, which will make a big difference to so many lives.
STIs, HPV vaccines and stigma
One of the reasons I want to spend a bit of time pausing to celebrate this news is because at the time the HPV vaccine was introduced – in 2008 – there was a lot of fuss about whether it would lead young people to have more sex. Because, you know, the only thing really stopping my generation from fully going at it all guns blazing was the worry that in twenty years time they’d have a slightly higher risk of getting cancer.
It was distinctly gendered, because the HPV vaccines were originally only given to people with cervixes (i.e. mostly girls), because of the cervical cancer link. Apologies for the cis-centric language here, but there’s definitely a gendered element to the reaction this vaccine caused: one of the key worries raised by critics of the HPV vaccine was that it may increase sexual activity, as girls threw caution to the wind and decided to go out shagging now they were safe from contracting this one specific STI. Personally I do not care how much sex other people are having, as long as they are doing so consensually and safely, but it seems to be a Big Deal to others so for what it’s worth let’s just remember that our news has been fairly heavily peppered lately with stories about how young people are having far less sex.
The issue with vaccinating against a sexually transmitted infection, as opposed to any other kind of infection, is that it will always bump up against this kind of stigma from people who would prefer we advocate abstinence as a magic solution. But, as centuries of evidence show us, abstinence doesn’t work. It’s far better to provide young people with great sex education that has a solid foundation in key principles like consent, self-worth, communication, and more, then let them take decisions for themselves with thorough knowledge of risks and risk-minimisation strategies.
Oh, and if you also have a vaccine that could wipe out certain kinds of cancer within a generation, why not use that too?
Catch-up vaccines for boys: take action!
I don’t want you to go away from this blog thinking that HPV is totally sorted now, and no one needs to worry about the types of cancer that can be caused by certain strains of HPV. I also don’t want you panicking, if you’re of my generation and have not had the vaccine, that you’re at incredibly high risk of a really dangerous thing. There’s some great and helpful info on HPV over on the NHS website, so go read that if you want some medical info, get STI tests if you need them, and make sure to get your smear test if you’re eligible (i.e. if you have a cervix and you are between the ages of 25-64 in the UK).
There’s something else you can do for others, though, that’ll help bring this awesome vaccination programme to more young people, and reduce HPV transmission, and associated risks, further. As I mentioned above, the programme was extended in September so that boys aged 12/13 were also given the vaccine, but there’s a charity called HPV action which is currently lobbying for a catch-up campaign to vaccinate those who are slightly older and so may have missed out. You can sign this petition to extend the HPV vaccination programme, to make sure more people have access to the vaccine.
And if you have children of your own, you can not only make sure that they get their HPV vaccines, but also use this as a cool excuse to talk to them about STIs, risk, and other interesting things that may not have been covered well in your own sex education classes. While you’re at it, why not let them know that when it comes to health outcomes, evidence-based approaches can do really astonishing things, and science should always trump stigma.