Since September 2008 there has been a national programme to vaccinate girls aged 12 to 13 against the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer, and the HPV vaccine is also known as the cervical cancer jab.
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.
The vaccination programme is delivered largely through secondary schools, and consists of three injections that should be given over a period of 12 months.
In the UK, from September 2008 to July 2010, at least 4 million doses were given.
Research has shown that the HPV vaccines provides effective protection for at least six years after completing the three-dose course. It is not known how long protection will last beyond this time.
Human papilloma virus (HPV)
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name given to a family of viruses that affect the skin and the moist membranes (mucosa) that line the body.
Mucosa are found in the mouth, throat, cervix (neck of the womb), and anus.
Some types of HPV are transmitted through sexual contact.
Different types of HPV virus are classed as either high-risk or low-risk, depending on the conditions they can cause.
Often, infection with the HPV causes no symptoms. Somes types of HPV can cause warts or verucas. 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.
HPV infections are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Genital HPV infections are transmitted through sexual contact.
The viruses that cause genital HPV infections may be present on your genitals and the surrounding area, including around your anus.
Up to 8 out of 10 people are infected with HPV at some time during their lives. In most cases, the virus does not cause any harm because the immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection) gets rid of the infection. It is possible for you to be infected with more than one type of HPV.
Using a condom during sexual intercourse can help to prevent a genital HPV infection. However, as condoms do not cover the entire genital area and are often put on after sexual contact has begun, a HPV infection can still be transmitted even when a condom is used.
Different types of HPV
There are over 100 different types of HPV, with around 40 types affecting 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:
Combined with cervical screening, the HPV vaccination is an important step towards preventing cervical cancer. It is estimated that about 400 lives could be saved in the UK every year as a result of vaccinating girls before they are infected with HPV.
See HPV vaccination – Why it is needed for more information.
Types of HPV vaccine
There are currently two vaccines available for HPV:
From September 2012 the Gardasil vaccine will be used in the national vaccination programme. A significant advantage of Gardasil is that it is 99% effective against the strains of HPV that can cause genital warts.
When the vaccination programme was launched, the Department of Health decided to offer Cervarix. Cervarix did not offer protection against the types of HPV that cause genital warts.
The HP vaccine is part of the national vaccination programme and is given to secondary school girls aged 12 and 13.
Special precautions may need to be taken if the person being vaccinated has certain health conditions, or has ever had a severe allergic reaction.
Learn more in who can use the HPV vaccine?
The vaccine is given as a series of three injections within a 12-month period. Learn more in how the HPV vaccine is given.
Cervical screening is a method of identifying abnormal cells in the cervix (neck of the womb). Early detection and treatment can prevent three-quarters of cancers developing.
Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal cell changes in the cervix. In Scotland, all women between the ages of 20 and 60 are offered a cervical screening test every three years.
You can find out more about cervical screening in our Screening Scotland Zone.