HPV Cancer deaths preventable by vaccination

Prof. Deirdre Murray
Prof. Deirdre Murray

The National Cancer Registry estimates that there are 641 cases of new human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated cancers diagnosed and 196  deaths from the disease per year in Ireland, most of which are potentially preventable by HPV vaccination.

HPV is a group of viruses known to infect the genital area, as well as the mouth and the throat. HPV is now well-established as an important risk factor for cervical, vaginal, vulval, penile and anorectal cancers, as well as head and neck cancers. Almost all sexually active people develop HPV infections, and about half of these infections are with a high-risk HPV-type virus. These high-risk HPV infections are estimated to cause about 5% of all cancers worldwide.

A report from the NCRI says the incidence rate for most HPV cancers, apart from cervical cancer, is increasing in Ireland since the 1990s. Cervical, oropharyngeal and anorectal cancers are usually diagnosed at younger ages than other HPV-associated cancers. Many HPV-associated cancers are diagnosed early, apart from head and neck cancers, where the majority are diagnosed late. Survival rates for most HPV-associated cancers continue to improve, though survival rates vary by cancer. 

Population screening for cervical cancer was rolled out in Ireland in 2008, with the positive impact of screening on cancer incidence being seen almost immediately. HPV vaccination was introduced for girls in first year of secondary school from 2010 and extended to boys in 2019. The national HPV vaccination programme is expected to prevent HPV infection and reduce the incidence of all HPV-associated cancers in the longer term.

Key findings in the report:

  1. HPV-associated cancers account for almost 3% of all invasive cancers excluding non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) in Ireland, but account for 7% of such cancers in young adults aged 20-49 years.
  2. The age standardised incidence rate for HPV-associated cancers, apart from cervical cancer, is increasing.
  3. The age-standardised incidence rate for cervical cancer has been decreasing since 2010, following the introduction of a population-based screening programme in 2008.
  4. Survival for most HPV-associated cancers has increased. Head and neck and anorectal cancer survival rates have improved more than penile or vulval survival rates.
  5. The stage at diagnosis varies by cancer site, with most cervical, vulval, and penile cancers being diagnosed early (at stage I or II), whereas the majority of head and neck cancers are diagnosed late (at stage III or IV). 

Cancers associated with HPV infection are potentially highly preventable. Vaccination and regular screening play crucial roles in preventing and detecting HPV-associated cancers early and successful programmes will mitigate the impact of these diseases on individuals and communities. NCRI will continue to support these initiatives by monitoring their impact on cancer incidence and outcomes” said–Professor Deirdre Murray, Director of the National Cancer Registry.