Cervical cancer survivor urges children to get HPV vaccine, as new data shows decline in uptake

  • Anna Wakefield told ITV News Anglia's Katie Templeton-Knight about her experiences

A woman who was left infertile from cervical cancer treatment has urged secondary school children to get a potentially life-saving vaccine, as figures show uptake of the jab has dropped.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination is given to children in year 8 and 9 and can help prevent multiple types of cancer in men and women.

Anna Wakefield, 44, from Norwich was diagnosed with cervical cancer aged 34, following a smear test.

She was given a 5% chance of survival and discovered that her cancer had spread.

"You never expect to hear those words in relation to you, so my very first question was 'Am I going to die?'", she said.

She had not had the HPV jab as a teenager as the vaccination programme only started in 2008, and by then she was no longer eligible.

Ms Wakefield told ITV News: " I am confident in saying that if I'd had the HPV vaccine, I would not have got cancer. It’s as simple as that."

Anna Wakefield is now eight years free from cervical cancer Credit: ITV News Anglia

After rounds of chemotherapy, radio therapy and brachytherapy, as well as a clinical drug trial, she is now eight years free from cancer.

However, her treatment has had a lasting impact.

"It’s left me infertile because cancer puts you into early induced menopause. So although the cancer treatment saved my life, it’s left me unable to have children,” she said.

Cervical cancer currently kills two women in the UK every day and is the fourth most common cancer in women globally. 

But men and people without cervixes can still be at risk of cancers caused by HPV. 

Five key points about HPV:

  • HPV is the name of a very common group of viruses. 

  • The HPV vaccine protects against high-risk types types of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts and cervical cancer, as well as some other cancers. 

  • Cancers linked to high-risk HPV include cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, vulval cancer, vaginal cancer and some types of head and neck cancer. 

  • The vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV.

  • The HPV vaccine will prevent most cervical cancer cases, but not all, and so even vaccinated women should still attend for cervical screening when invited to do so.

(Source: NHS)

Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has shown that the number of children having the HPV vaccine is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The HPV vaccine is offered to all 12 to 13-year-olds and it follows a two-dose schedule.

HPV vaccine coverage decreased by 7% in year 8 girls and 8.7% in year 8 boys in 2021 to 2022 when compared to the previous academic year. 

The data suggests that the NHS has already caught up many children who missed out on their HPV vaccine since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with first dose uptake improving for children in year 9 and year 10. 

However, coverage largely remains lower than before the pandemic.

Areas with the lowest uptake include the South West (North) and the East of England, where less than 60% of children had a full dosage last year.

The vaccination can help to prevent multiple types of cancer caused by HPV. Credit: PA Images

Prof Margaret Stanley from the University of Cambridge department of Pathology said that the data was concerning.

"If you looked globally, 5% of all cancers are caused by HPV and this vaccine is tremendously effective at preventing infection," she said.

“It’s really important to get girls and boys vaccinated. This vaccine protects fantastically well. 

“You’re immunising the 12-year-olds to protect the adult they will become, and if you don’t immunise them, you don’t protect them.”

Prof Stanley said the main reason for the drop in uptake was due to the coronavirus lockdowns, since the vaccines are given at school.

However, she also suggested vaccine hesitancy could be another factor.

"There is a loss of confidence in vaccines, partly because of Covid and a lot of anti-vaccine activity - and that's almost contagious," she said.

The vaccine has shown that it reduces the rate of cervical cancer in women.

A study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that cervical cancer rates were 87% lower in young women who had the vaccine, when compared to similar young women born a few years earlier who had not been offered a vaccination.

Overall, the study found that the HPV vaccine programme had successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since 1 September, 1995.

However, some charities say that not enough is being done to try and eliminate cervical cancer. 

In its latest report, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Charity found that only 17% of health professionals working across cervical cancer prevention think enough is currently being done to eliminate cervical cancer in the UK.

Only 20% think enough is being done to ensure high levels of HPV vaccine uptake, and just 16% believe that enough is being done to support cervical screening uptake. 

The minister for Women’s Health, Maria Caulfield said: "As a nurse who has worked on cancer units, I have seen first-hand the importance of HPV vaccination in saving countless lives by preventing cervical cancer.

"We’re improving the cervical cancer screening process, including opening up 24/7 laboratory screening and expanding the location options available – so people can get their tests easier and results faster.

"I encourage all 12 and 13-year-olds who are offered this vaccine to take it – it could save your life."

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