Thousands of girls in the UK have not been vaccinated against HPV

According to a new report, the Public Health England (PHE) campaign to vaccinate all girls between the ages of 12 and 18 years against HPV was only achieved in two-thirds of the population in some areas between 2017-2018.

Doctor administering HPV vaccineADfoto | Shutterstock

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is linked to cancer of the uterine cervix. There are around 100 strains of HPV, but HPV-16 and HPV-18 have been linked to most cases (70%) of cervical cancer.  

Almost every case (99.7%) of cervical cancer is linked to infection with one or more high-risk HPV. Some other HPV types, denoted low-risk, may cause genital warts.

The HPV vaccine prevents infection with four types of HPV that cause about 80% of cervical cancer and almost every case of genital warts.

Full immunity requires that two doses of the HPV vaccine be taken. According to the NHS, this effectively prevents high-risk HPV infection. A single dose is considered to give inadequate protection.

New data shows that around 57,000 girls did not receive one or both of the injections required for complete immunization. Despite these statistics, PHE claims it has a “stable and consistent” vaccine program.

The aim is to vaccinate at least 80% of girls, in an attempt to achieve herd immunity, which protects women who have not been vaccinated by reducing the prevalence of HPV in the population.

A total of 354,658 girls were eligible for the HPV vaccine this year. Normally, the first dose is offered between 12-13 years, and the second dose comes 6-12 months later.

PHE statistics reveal that only 83.3% of eligible girls (between 12-13 years of age) were fully immunized. In other words, one in six missed the second dose, while a little more than 10% missed both.

Despite the country-wide HPV immunization rate of 80% for this group of girls, there are significant variations from area to area, ranging from 86.6% in Scotland and 80.3% in Wales to 84.7% in Northern Ireland.

According to PHE reports, only 65% of girls in some regions of London, like Hammersmith and Fulham were vaccinated. This is in contrast to other areas like North Yorkshire, Portsmouth, and Tameside, where over 90% of girls were fully immunized.

In view of the wide disparity between some regions, the overall rate should not lead to official complacency, according to Robert Music, chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust.

A cervical cancer survivor and school administrator, Emmeline Collin, tells her 13-year-old daughter Lucy the HPV vaccine can be lifesaving. This 47-year-old lady had asymptomatic cervical cancer in 2009.

She calls herself lucky to have had her cancer treated early because it was detected on a routine cervical smear. 10 years later, she is encouraging Lucy to be immunized against HPV.  

Mrs. Collin knows that many parents find it difficult to explain the use of the vaccine to girls because of their fear that it will encourage sexual activity and promiscuity.

She doesn’t agree with this, however, calling it a “naïve” view; she feels parents should tell their girls the value of the vaccine without fear or hesitation.

The answer, according to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, is educating girls and their parents about the virus.

Many religio-cultural beliefs and language barriers prevent uniform vaccine uptake rates across England, according to NHS teams.

Apart from the fear of some parents in certain non-white communities that administering the vaccine amounts to giving girls the freedom to become sexually active, another concern among parents is vaccine safety.

If children are not given the second vaccine within the timescale due to absenteeism or sickness we still offer it to them in a later school year but they will not be captured in the figures.”

Central and North West NHS Foundation Trust

It also pointed out that some children moved to schools in other areas after parents refused permission for second vaccine doses.

Girls who missed either of their HPV vaccines should speak to their school nurse or GP and arrange to get the vaccine as soon as possible as they remain eligible until their 18th birthday."

Dr. Mary Ramsey, PHE head of Immunizations

Liji Thomas

Written by

Liji Thomas

Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated as gold medallist from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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