Taking Action on International HPV Awareness Day to Eliminate 5% of Cancers

04 March 2022

International HPV Awareness Day (IHAD) 2022 is on 4 March. Inaugurated by the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS) in 2018, it provides an opportunity for organisations to focus attention on HPV, to improve public understanding and awareness, and to help prevent all the cancers caused by the virus. The European Cancer Organisation (ECO) is one of more than 110 civil society organisations across 50 countries that is an official IHAD campaign partner.

This year’s HPV Awareness Day is branded #onelessworry. The idea is that, through education, vaccination, and screening, one big health concern can be ticked off the list.

HPV currently causes about 5% of all cancers worldwide, resulting in almost half a million deaths a year. In Europe, the proportion is lower – HPV causes around 2.5% of cancers – but that is still some 87,000 cases annually. Cervical cancer is the best-known cancer caused by HPV, but it also causes vaginal, vulval, anal, penile, head and neck cancers. Up to 30% of HPV cancer cases are in men.

Almost all of these cancers can be prevented through vaccination, ideally given to all boys and girls in adolescence. Cervical cancer screening programmes will remain essential for the foreseeable future. This is because vaccination only began in Europe in 2008 and there are no countries that have achieved 100% vaccination uptake.

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, published by the European Commission (EC) in 2021, contains a very welcome and significant ‘flagship’ commitment to eliminating all the cancers caused by HPV through gender-neutral vaccination programmes. WHO Europe is currently consulting on a roadmap to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem in its region and it is hoped that the EC’s lead on gender-neutral vaccination is followed.

The European Cancer Organisation and its HPV Action Network believe that action is now needed on four main fronts:

  • All countries must commit to introducing gender-neutral vaccination as soon as possible and making it easily accessible, especially at schools.

  • Healthcare professionals (HCPs) need to be trained and feel confident to discuss HPV vaccination with young people, parents and care givers. There is good evidence that HCPs, as a trusted source of information, can have a significant impact on vaccine uptake through one-to-one conversations with patients.

  • Wider public health information campaigns using a range of media is required to communicate clearly and concisely with target audiences. The potential of such campaigns was seen in Ireland where they succeeded in reversing a sharp fall in vaccination uptake in 2015 after vaccine safety concerns were promoted by social and mainstream media.

  • Cervical cancer screening programmes must be provided systematically to all eligible citizens throughout Europe. Programmes must utilise the latest technologies – HPV testing rather than cytology – and widen access by allowing self-sampling.

International HPV Awareness Day provides a good opportunity for ECO and its partners to call for action on all these points as well as to communicate clear messages on HPV to the public.

We largely know what to do to increase HPV vaccination uptake and screening and, ultimately, to eliminate all the cancers caused by HPV. They key question is: if not now, when?