From the CEO – January 2024: Cervical Cancer. Is the end in sight?

29 January 2024

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. But for how much longer? How much longer will it take to eliminate the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes this deadly disease?

We have a safe and effective HPV vaccine waiting on shelves throughout Europe. Why can't we get more young people vaccinated?

Why can't we get more women in Europe screened for HPV so that we can catch the disease at its earliest stages when treatment is most effective and lives can be saved? There are few cancers so easily prevented. ECO and our community are driving home this message, both in Brussels and in our visits to national capitals across Europe.

In some countries, the issue is one of vaccine access. Boys often do not get the same access to the vaccine, even though they often spread the virus and are victims themselves. Some of HPV's nasty work includes penile, anal, and head and neck cancers.

In other countries, the issue is one of attitudes and culture. There's a reluctance to talk about sex, especially premarital sex and homosexual sex, which is still a taboo subject in many places. So talk of HPV, and the vaccine to prevent it, are quietly slipped under the carpet.

Yes, we are making progress, and we are devoting significant time and effort to the cause. But misperceptions and misinformation remain rampant across much of Europe.

When I was in Bulgaria recently, I was hearing stories that even healthcare professionals can be an impediment to HPV vaccination. Some are telling women  who are unable to get pregnant that the HPV vaccination they received could be the cause. How do we correct this mindset?

Last week I was talking at a virtual event with more than a hundred health and medical students from across Europe. They were adamant on one point: they were all eager to become HPV ambassadors. They want to become engaged advocates in this public health battle. This is encouraging, but we need many more GPs, nurses, pharmacists and dentists - trusted healthcare professionals - to begin the conversation with their patients: 'Have you had your HPV vaccine?' They need to help introduce some life-saving facts.

In another meeting I attended, we were talking about HPV with a broad range of people, and I asked: 'Who here knows about HPV?' One woman put up her hand. I said 'Oh, you mean you've had the vaccine?' And she replied: 'I've actually had the HPV virus.' I was taken aback to discover that kind of openness and transparency. I think it wasn't there five years ago when we started this work on HPV, but it is now.  Attitudes are changing. I'm seeing more people at least willing to discuss the virus and the vaccine to prevent it.

Europe's Beating Cancer Plan has helped push HPV to centre stage as one of its flagship policies. PROTECT-EUROPE, the EU co-funded project that ECO co-ordinates, is one example.  But so too has the broader community. Lots of organisations are now working on it in lots of different countries: youth organisations, family organisations, healthcare organisations, patient organisations. They have all joined the fight against HPV and, most importantly, they are often working together and not in their own silos. This is especially encouraging.

As we end Cervical Cancer Awareness Month for 2024, let's recognise that we have the end in sight. We know clearly how to get there. Let's all redouble our efforts to reach the finish line.

If you would like to find out more or get involved in ECO’s work on HPV, please contact me:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Best wishes,

Mike Morrissey
European Cancer Organisation

From the CEO – January 2024: Cervical Cancer. Is the end in sight?