Science & Technology in Action

15th Edition

The Universal HPV Vaccination programme

Health Service Executive

The HPV vaccine is being recommended for boys because the more boys and girls that are vaccinated the sooner the overall burden of HPV related cancers will be reduced. Vaccinating boys will provide greater protection for girls. Universal vaccination, rather than vaccinating girls only, will strengthen prevention of cervical cancer in women by herd immunity.
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Universal HPV Vaccination Programme

In May 2018 the Director-General of the World Health Organisation asked political leaders worldwide to take action towards the elimination of cervical cancer by implementing an effective vaccination programme. In December 2018 the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, announced a universal HPV vaccination programme.

A few facts

Almost all of cervical cancer deaths are entirely preventable. Unlike many other forms of cancer, cervical cancer is caused by a virus – a virus for which we now have a vaccine. HPV vaccine prevents the HPV infection which causes cancers in both men and women.

How does vaccination work?

The immune system protects the body from pathogens including viruses and bacteria. The body’s response to an infection (antigen) may be relatively slow at first but, if the person survives, the immune system recognises the infection (antigen) if it recurs and can then attack it much more quickly and effectively.

Some infections (e.g. polio, HPV and bacterial meningitis) can have very serious or even fatal consequences and so it is much better to avoid infection. The best way to do this is through vaccination.

Vaccination triggers the immune system to respond to an infection without actually getting the disease. Inactivated pathogens, or parts of a pathogen — or, as with HPV vaccine, synthetic virus-like particles (VLPs) produced from protein of each HPV type using recombinant DNA technology — are introduced into the body. They act as antigens. The immune system recognises these injected antigens as foreign and develops antibodies against them. Special memory cells retain a memory of the pathogen. If at a later date the real pathogen gains access to the body, the immune system reacts quickly to prevent the infection developing. Vaccination immunises a person against the disease.

What is HPV?

Around 40 types of HPV can infect the genital tract. HPV is contagious and is spread by skin to skin contact infecting the mucous membranes mainly during sexual activity. Condoms can reduce the risk of catching HPV but they won’t eliminate the risk because the condom may not cover all areas of skin infected by HPV.

Some low risk HPV types cause genital warts. Most HPV infections are asymptomatic and clear naturally but some, caused by high risk types, can persist and cause cancer. It is estimated 80% of sexually active adults develop some HPV infection.

True or False?

  1. At least 75% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV types 16 and 18. true
  2. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by some type of HPV. true
  3. About 100 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. false
  4. There are just nine types of HPV. false
  5. Almost all deaths from cervical cancer are preventable by vaccination. true
  6. A vaccine trains the body’s immune system to fight off a disease. true
  7. HPV does not cause cancer in men. false
  8. The body produces antibodies against foreign antigens. true
  9. Papilloma viruses reproduce only in blood cells. false
  10. HPV vaccination works best at 22 years of age. false
  11. One dose of the HPV vaccine confers immunity. false

Glossary of terms

antibodies
proteins produced by lymphocytes in response to a particular antigen
antigen
a chemical that stimulates the specific immune system to produce antibodies
asymptomatic
not showing any symptoms
bacteria
unicellular micro-organisms without nuclei or chlorophyll
burden
overall financial cost of a disease (including disability, treatment, death)
cervical cancer
cancer of the cervix; often fatal but preventable by vaccination
epithelial cells
cells in the outer layers of skin or of internal spaces
Gardasil 9
a commercial vaccine that prepares the body to resist nine major strains of HPV
HPV
human papilloma virus; the most common sexually transmitted infection; some types can lead to cancer or genital warts
immune system
the body's system of defences against disease - composed of certain white blood cells and antibodies.
immunises
makes a person immune to a disease
oncogenic
liable to cause the development of cancer
pathogen
a microorganism that is capable of causing disease in a specific host
mucous membranes
Membranes that line the inner walls of the breathing, digestive, urinary and reproductive systems.
Papilloma viruses
a numerous family of small DNA viruses, different strains of which infect virtually all mammals
recombinant DNA
DNA molecules that are created by combining sections of DNA from different sources
syncope
fainting; temporary loss of consciousness usually related to insufficient blood flow to the brain
vaccination
use of a vaccine to create a specific immune response to a particular antigen, protecting the body from further infection
vaccine
a substance that causes the body to produce antibodies against a disease, without actually causing the disease
virus
a very small disease-causing particle containing DNA which when it enters a cell typically redirects the cellular mechanism to produce more virus particles
World Health Organisation
an international organisation set up by the United Nations in 1948 to promote global health