HPV vaccine cuts pre-cancerous growths, but uptake is low - study

New Zealand women are lagging behind when it comes to getting the HPV vaccine, despite new research showing it's working.

A heartening new study has found women with the HPV vaccine have a drastically lower chance of cervical cancer. 

The Otago University research, which looked at outcomes for more than 100,000 women, found those vaccinated prior to turning 18 years had particularly good results. 

"Women who had been vaccinated had a 31 percent reduction in the risk of developing a high-grade pre-cancerous abnormality of the cervix," by age 24, said Associate Professor Peter Sykes, who led the research.

"If given to a women before she has exposure to HPV, [the vaccine] would produce about a 50 percent reduction in the risk of having a high-grade abnormality." 

How the vaccine reduces the chance of pre-cancerous abnormalities.
How the vaccine reduces the chance of pre-cancerous abnormalities. Photo credit: NZMJ

The HPV vaccine was introduced in 2008, initially just for women born in 1990 and 1991. It was quickly expanded to cover everyone born from 1992 onwards. In 2017 a new version was released, fully subsidised for men and women up to the age of 26.

But not as many Kiwi women are getting vaccinated as in the UK and Australia. Forty-one percent of women got vaccinated before they were 18 and 14 percent after, leaving 45 percent unvaccinated. In the UK, uptake is higher than 80 percent, and it's similar in Australia

"We need to vaccinate a greater proportion of our women at a younger age," said Sykes. "We still have relatively low vaccination rates in New Zealand." 

Māori women were less likely to get the vaccine, but when they did it worked just as well as for non-Māori.

Sykes said continued screening is vital as even vaccinated people aren't immune from developing cancer.

The findings were published on Friday in the New Zealand Medical Journal.