All girls aged 12 to 13 are offered HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccination as part of the childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine protects against cervical cancer. It's usually given to girls in year eight at schools in England.
According to Cancer Research UK, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35. In the UK, 2,900 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer, that's around eight women every day.
Around 970 women died from cervical cancer in 2011 in the UK. It's estimated that about 400 lives could be saved every year in the UK as a result of vaccinating girls before they are infected with HPV.
The HPV vaccine is delivered largely through secondary schools, and consists of two injections into the upper arm spaced at least six, and not more than 24 months apart (girls who began vaccination before September 2014 receive three injections).
Research has indicated that the HPV vaccine protects against cervical cancer for at least 20 years.
What is HPV?
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name given to a family of viruses.
Different types of HPV are classed as either high risk or low risk, depending on the conditions they can cause. For instance, some types of HPV can cause warts or verrucas. Other types are associated with cervical cancer.
In 99% of cases, cervical cancer occurs as a result of a history of infection with high-risk types of HPV. Often, infection with the HPV causes no symptoms.
How is HPV infection spread?
The HPV virus is very common and is easily spread by sexual activity.
As much as half the population will be infected at some time in their life. In most cases, the virus doesn't do any harm because your immune system gets rid of the infection. But in some cases, the infection persists and can lead to health problems.
Although most girls don't start having sex until after they're 16 years of age, it's important that they get this protection early enough and a good time is in the early teenage years – getting the vaccine as early as possible will protect them in the future.
Using a condom during sex can help to prevent HPV infection. However, as condoms do not cover the entire genital area and are often put on after sexual contact has begun, a condom is no guarantee against the spread of HPV.
Different types of HPV and what they do
There are over 100 different types of HPV, with around 40 types that affect the genital area.
Infection with some high-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.
Infection with other types of HPV may cause:
genital warts: small growths or skin changes on or around the genital or anal area, these are the most common viral sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
skin warts and verrucas
vaginal cancer or vulval cancer (although these types of cancer are rare)
anal cancer or cancer of the penis
some cancers of the head and neck
laryngeal papillomas (warts on the voice box or vocal cords)
How the HPV vaccine helps
A vaccine called Gardasil is used in the national cervical cancer vaccination programme. Gardasil protects against the two types of HPV, between them responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancers in the UK.
A bonus of using Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer is that it prevents genital warts too.
Which girls should have the HPV vaccination?
The HPV vaccine is part of the childhood vaccination programme and is routinely offered to secondary school girls aged 12 and 13.
It's a safe vaccine and there are very few girls who aren't suitable for HPV vaccination. However, special precautions may need to be taken if the girl being vaccinated has certain health conditions, or has ever had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).
The HPV vaccine is currently given as a series of two injections within a six- to 24-month period.
Girls who began their course of HPV vaccination before September 2014 receive three injections.
Can girls who missed HPV vaccination still have it?
Yes, if a girl misses either of her vaccinations, for whatever reason, speak to her nurse or doctor about making another appointment, ideally as close as possible to the original one.
Girls who have the HPV vaccination after the age of 15 will need three doses as the response to two doses is not so good in older girls.
Cervical screening and the HPV vaccine
Cervical screening is a way of picking up abnormal cells in the cervix before they progress to cancer. It's been shown that early detection and treatment of cervical abnormalities picked up by screening can prevent three-quarters of cervical cancers.
Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal cell changes in the cervix. So it's important that all girls who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.
Now, read why it's so important for 12-13 year-old girls to receive the HPV vaccination and find out more about the safety of the HPV vaccine.