The HPV Action Network was established in 2019. As an oncology nurse and professor of nursing, I've spent much of my career looking after people with cancer, teaching about it, researching it, writing about it. And I was profoundly frustrated. Very little had been done, in my view, to stop HPV cancers that are eminently preventable.
These challenging cancers – of the cervix, anus, vulva, vagina, penis, and throat – are caused by a single pathogen, the human papillomavirus. We're all at risk of exposure and many just don't realise just how dangerous it can be.
HPV is a global health issue, but it really hadn’t been addressed consistently by Europeans, certainly not in a way to bring all stakeholders together, to look at the problem and actually address it. The HPV Action Network is doing just that.
Under the umbrella of the European Cancer Organisation, we quickly enlisted different professions to lend their specific expertise. We got the pathologists, the nurses, the radiographers, the surgeons, the medical oncologists, and representatives of those effected. And together they provided valuable guidance on how to reduce or prevent HPV cancers. Importantly, we also work with politicians.
Our first year was remarkable. The emphasis was, and still is, on data. Once we identify countries lagging behind against HPV, they become our focus, including their national decisionmakers. The objective: greater HPV awareness; vaccine availability for all girls and boys, and effective screening to detect cervical and other cancers early.
Starting with awareness, people will understand how and why they need to protect themselves or their children. Everybody who wants the HPV vaccine should be able to have it. We can't force that on people, but if they know the facts, they can choose. An important point that we stress is gender-neutral availability. We should not just be offering vaccines to girls. It cannot be discriminatory; access should be built on equity.
Where we see clear success stories are in countries like Britain and Ireland. And then there are countries like Portugal, which also have very effective systems to distribute the vaccine. But then you've got countries that might surprise you where things are not always so successful; France and Germany would be examples.
It’s often a result of historic perceptions and priorities. In France, for example, there's a higher tendency towards vaccine hesitancy. And they may not like to be told to get a jab. Ideally, you want the shot given before someone is sexually active. So, you're talking about young people who need parental consent. In some countries consent may not be forthcoming because it's thought to be a kind of gateway to promiscuity, that if we vaccinate our young people, they’ll just go off and have sex with each other and responsibility disappears.
That’s why the biggest challenge in this fight is public awareness and conveying scientific facts clearly and repeatedly.
That’s exactly what we are doing, and we are making a real difference. We've already influenced the EU Beating Cancer Plan, which is big achievement. We got HPV included as a specific target in the Plan, and each country is now expected to address HPV in their own National Cancer Plan. We lobbied for that, and we succeeded.
Now we are focused on PROTECT-EUROPE, funded mostly by the EU for Health Programme, which brings together a consortium of organisations, including young people.
This two-year effort will gather the latest evidence on HPV vaccination and support clinicians to communicate with citizens and public health professionals to challenge misinformation and encourage maximum HPV vaccination uptake.
I think I can speak for the whole network when I say we’re very proud of our achievements to date. We are clearly influencing health policy across Europe. We are driven. We are focused, and we are delivering results.
To find out more about our HPV Action Network, its history, its co-chairs Prof. Daniel Kelly OBE and Margaret Stanley, Immediate Past-President, International Papillomarvirus Society (IPVS), click here. We also thank our past co-chair Rui Medeiros, President, European Cancer Leagues (ECL).
Also, don't hesitate to check out our HPV Testimonies project here.