New HPV Vaccine Can Prevent 80% of Cervical Cancers

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The newest cervical cancer vaccine offers additional protection against cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV). (Photo: Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Corbis)

A vaccine to help protect against some forms of cervical cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) has been on the market for years. But new research shows that a newer version, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2014, can prevent more than 80 percent of cervical cancers.

The new 9-valent human papillomavirus vaccine, which guards against seven cancer-causing HPV types, also has the potential to protect against other cancers including anal, oral, and penile cancers. 

All of the HPV vaccines available defend against HPV types 16 and 18, which are known to cause about two-thirds of cervical cancers in the United States. The 9-valent vaccine also guards against five additional types of HPV, which combined cause about 15 percent of cervical cancer cases.

According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The virus causes nearly all forms of cervical cancer and five percent of all cancers.

The vaccine’s benefits were analyzed in a joint study initiated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Cervical cancer affects more than 12,000 women in the U.S. each year and kills more than 4,000 annually, according to the CDC. That number has declined significantly over the past 40 years due to more women getting regular pap tests, which can detect precancerous growths that may lead to cervical cancer.

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Cervical cancer is most commonly detected via pap test, which the American Cancer Society recommends women receive regularly. The timeframe varies by age: Women ages 21 to 29 should get a pap smear every three years and those who are 30 to 65 should get one every five years. Women who are older than 65 can stop testing if they haven’t had any pre-cancers detected from regular testing in the previous 20 years. 

Lead researcher Marc Goodman, MD, director of cancer prevention and genetics at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, calls the results “monumental.” 

“I’ve been working on human papilloma since the 1980s,” he tells Yahoo Health. “This is a huge victory.”

While cervical cancer is treatable if it’s caught in time, preventing its development altogether is definitely preferable, says Amanda Nickles Fader, MD, associate professor and director of The Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “A vaccine that can prevent a life-threatening cancer is an excellent thing. We can save lives,” she tells Yahoo Health.

Not only that, it can also save women from stress associated with the discovery of a precancerous lesion and time spent on follow-up visits to the doctor, says Anna Giuliano, PhD, founding director for the Center for Infection Research in Cancer at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.

While the new version of the vaccine has a huge potential to impact the health of women, Goodman stresses that the vaccine is for girls and boys since anal, penile, and oral cancers are linked to HPV as well. He also cites a “herd immunity” — if a boy is vaccinated and he has sex with a girl who isn’t, he could reduce the odds that HPV will be transmitted to her.

Related: Why Cancer-Free Women Are Choosing to Have Their Breasts Removed

HPV vaccination is recommended for children who are 11 to 12 years old, but Fader says it’s still possible for women past that age to receive the vaccine to play “catch-up.” However, it’s unknown how effective it may be once a person has been exposed to HPV.

The existing vaccine may not be as effective on adults, but Fader notes that clinical trials are being conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers on vaccines that may reduce the risk of harm for women who have already been exposed to cancer-causing forms of HPV. 

In the meantime, experts stress that regular pap smears, safe sex, and giving children the vaccine are crucial steps toward fighting cervical and other cancers caused by HPV.

“We continue to improve on the vaccines to get broader coverage against the cancers caused by HPV,” says Giuliano. “It’s an exciting time.”

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