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Vaccine against cervical cancer (HPV vaccine)

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HPV infection and cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is a life-threatening disease. In Norway, approximately 300 women annually develop this disease, 70 of whom will die as a result. Additionally, approximately 3000 women undergo surgery for serious early stages of cervical cancer. Pregnant women who have previously undergone such surgery may be at increased risk of aborting or of giving birth prematurely.

Cancer of the neck of the womb (cervix) is caused by a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV). There are many types of HPV virus. Each type has its own number. At least 12 HPV types can cause cervical cancer. The most common ones are HPV 16 and HPV 18. In Norway, these two virus types cause approximately 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer.

HPV infection is easily transmitted via sexual contact and does not usually cause symptoms. Most people acquire an HPV infection at some point during their life. Infection is most common among young people. HPV infection resolves spontaneously in most cases over a few months. If an infection with a cancer-causing (carcinogenic) form of HPV becomes chronic, it can develop into the preliminary stages of cervical cancer (cell changes). These precancerous changes may develop into cervical cancer. This may take 10–30 years.

HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine consists of proteins and resembles parts of the surface of HPV 16 and 18.The vaccine contains no living virus, and cannot cause HPV infection. When the vaccine is given to girls who are not infected with HPV, the vaccine provides greater than 90 per cent protection against development of serious early stages of cervical cancer.

The first women who received the vaccine, almost ten years ago, still have good protection. The vaccine is thought to have a lasting, perhaps lifelong, effect. Follow-up of those vaccinated over time will show whether a booster dose is required later in life to extend the protection. 

The HPV vaccine is offered to girls in the 7th school year. Complete vaccination requires administration of two doses with an interval of at least 6 months. The vaccine is injected into the upper arm with a syringe.

The HPV vaccine has a preventive effect, and should be taken before exposure to infection. This is why the Norwegian Childhood Vaccination Programme offers HPV vaccination to girls well before the Norwegian average age of first sexual activity. 

Side effects

The most common side effects of the HPV vaccine are swelling and tenderness in the arm into which the vaccine is given. This resolves after a few days. Short-lasting fever, headache, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain have also been reported. 

Fainting following vaccination is not uncommon and is almost always caused by reactions to the needle/pain or the situation.

The vaccine used is called Cervarix.