Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer after breast cancer to affect women aged 15–44 years in the European Union. Each year, there are around 33 000 cases of cervical cancer in the EU, and 15 000 deaths. The primary cause of cervical cancer is a persistent infection of the genital tract by some specific types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is present in most cases of cervical lesions, which can further develop into cancer.
HPV is a group of viruses, of which more than 100 types have been described. About 40 of them can infect the genitals. At least 14 HPV types classified as ‘high risk’ can cause cervical cancer in women, and are associated with other anogenital cancers and head and neck cancers in both men and women. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are the most common types, causing about 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer. ‘Low risk’ HPV types, most commonly HPV 6 and HPV 11, are responsible of about 90% of cases of condylomata acuminata (genital warts).
Two prophylactic HPV vaccines have been licensed in Europe, a bivalent and a quadrivalent vaccine: both have a good safety profile and protect against the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. The quadrivalent vaccine also protects against HPV 6 and 11. Both vaccines have been shown to prevent more than 90% of precancerous lesions associated with HPV 16 and 18.
The vaccines are given in three doses over a six-month period. They do not cure existing infections and should therefore be given before onset of sexual activity.