4 March is International Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Awareness Day. HPV is a very common virus; nearly everyone will have it at some stage in their life. The good news is that most HPV infections do not cause any harm and clear by themselves within 12-18 months, however a HPV infection that persists for many years can cause cell changes in the cervix that can develop into cancer.
The even better news is that cervical cancer can be prevented through HPV vaccination for young adolescents and through regular cervical screening. In Australia, all women and people with a cervix can access Cervical Screening Tests (which look for HPV infections) every five years from the age of 25 to 74.
With these effective prevention strategies, it is possible to eliminate cervical cancer. In 2020, the World Health Organization launched a Global Strategy to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem within 100 years. Eliminating cervical cancer means that the number of women and people with a cervix who are diagnosed with cervical cancer is reduced to a very low number. It’s important to understand that it does not mean there will be no cases of cervical cancer at all.
The World Health Organization says that elimination of cervical cancer is achieved by a country when fewer than 4 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed for every 100,000 women in its population, and that it can keep the number of cases at this very low level. Australia aims to be one of the first countries in the world to reach this goal, as soon as 2035.
Whilst Australia is very successful in preventing cervical cancer in our community, we still have much more work to do. There are inequities in cervical cancer outcomes which must be tackled to ensure a cervical cancer free future for all Australian women and people with a cervix.
On 17th November 2021 the Australian Government announced the development of a collaborative National Cervical Cancer Elimination Strategy, led by the Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer (ACPCC). This project will inform the Australian Department of Health’s strategic activities to achieve the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem in Australia by 2035.
The National Cervical Cancer Elimination Strategy will be informed by extensive consultations with health experts, representatives of priority communities, and other interested stakeholders across the three pillars of cervical cancer elimination – HPV vaccination, screening, and treatment. The underlying principle of the project is equity, because the journey to elimination must include everyone.
Professor Karen Canfell, Director of the Daffodil Centre (a joint venture of Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney) and Chair of the Project’s Expert Advisory Group has said “We can achieve rates of cervical cancer in Australia that are so low that it can be considered to be eliminated by 2035. However, we need to address current inequities in participation and access to cervical cancer prevention and treatment services, to ensure elimination is achieved for all women and people with a cervix across the diverse communities we have in Australia.”
Associate Professor Lisa Whop, Torres Strait Islander Researcher from Australian National University and member of the National Elimination Project Team has said “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than other Australians, and almost four times more likely to die from it. This national strategy must address the disproportionate outcomes of cervical cancer for Indigenous women.”
Nicky Bath, CEO of LGBTIQ+ Health Australia and member of the Expert Advisory Group added “There is data to show that people who are not cis gender, heterosexual and/or have variations of sex characteristics can experience unique barriers to cervical cancer prevention. We are working to ensure that this Strategy will be inclusive of the needs of all LGBTIQ+ people with a cervix so that we can reach the goal of eliminating cervical cancer by 2035.”
It is vital that the Strategy is informed by the voices of priority communities, who also include people living with a disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people living in rural and remote areas.
We know how to prevent cervical cancer and we have the tools. This exciting national project will bring people together to map out how to reach elimination in an equitable way that will benefit all Australian women and people with a cervix.