New efforts underway to encourage free school vaccinations to eradicate HPV and cervical cancer

A concerted effort is underway to combat the threat of human papillomavirus (HPV) and its associated risk of cervical cancer in South Australia.

As students return to school this week, a concerted effort is underway to combat the threat of human papillomavirus (HPV) and its associated risk of cervical cancer in South Australia. Led by the State Government’s annual school immunisation program (SIP), young South Australians and their parents are being urged to embrace the free HPV vaccine, marking a crucial step towards eliminating this preventable disease.

Recent data underscores the urgency of the campaign. While immunisation rates for HPV remain relatively high in South Australia, a concerning decline has been observed in recent years. Figures from 2022 reveal that 71.5 per cent of males and 75.8 per cent of females aged 15 received the vaccine. However, between 2020 and 2022, there was a noticeable five per cent drop in vaccine coverage for males and a 3.2 per cent drop for females.

Collaborating with Cancer Council SA, the State Government is intensifying efforts to raise awareness about the importance of the HPV vaccine and to secure parental consent for their children’s vaccination. The SIP, which targets students in Years Seven and 10, offers not only protection against HPV but also guards against other harmful diseases.

Consent packs, comprising consent cards and parent information letters, were distributed to Year Seven and 10 students in Term 1. Additionally, a targeted social media and radio advertising campaign aimed at parents and caregivers has been conducted earlier this year to bolster awareness.

In South Australia, Year Seven students receive one dose of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) (dTpa), alongside one dose of the HPV vaccine. Year 10 students are offered a single dose of the meningococcal ACWY vaccine and two doses of the meningococcal B vaccine.

HPV, a prevalent sexually transmitted infection, poses a significant health risk, with eight out of 10 sexually active individuals experiencing HPV at some point. Crucially, the HPV vaccine is most effective when administered before sexual activity commences, underscoring the importance of vaccinating children aged 12 to 13.

Although HPV often manifests without symptoms and clears naturally in most cases, persistent infections can lead to severe complications, including cancer. Notably, HPV is responsible for almost all cervical cancers, a substantial proportion of other genital cancers, and a considerable portion of oropharyngeal cancers.

Cancer Council research highlights the potential of the HPV vaccination, combined with the new Cervical Screening Test, to position Australia as a global leader in cervical cancer elimination by 2035.

Chris Picton, Minister for Health & Wellbeing, stresses the importance of proactive vaccination: “We’re encouraging young South Australians to get protected through this year’s school immunisation program to help prevent these life-changing cancers.”

Echoing this sentiment, Blair Boyer, Minister for Education, Training & Skills, emphasizes the collaborative nature of health and education efforts in safeguarding young people: “The annual school immunisation program is a really important way in which health and education work together to support young people in our community.”

Acting Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Chris Lease, underscores the effectiveness and accessibility of the HPV vaccine, urging individuals aged nine to 25 to use this vital preventive measure. He said “The HPV vaccine used in Australia is called Gardasil. It is highly effective and provides long-lasting protection against nine types of HPV, including those associated with HPV-related cancers.
“The HPV vaccine is given in one dose and is recommended for all people living in Australia aged nine to 25.
“While the HPV vaccine works best if given before a person becomes sexually active, it’s never too late to get protected. The vaccine is available through your local GP or immunisation provider and is free for anyone between the ages of 12 and 25.”

Christine Morris, Prevention and Advocacy Manager at Cancer Council SA, stressed the pivotal role of vaccination in cervical cancer prevention, expressing hope that heightened awareness will lead to increased vaccination rates across South Australia. She said “While rates are declining across South Australia, we hope that once parents and caregivers are aware of how simply this type of cancer can be eliminated, they will ensure their children’s vaccinations are up to date.”

As South Australia mobilises its resources in the fight against HPV, the collective effort of government, health authorities, and advocacy groups is poised to make significant strides in curbing the prevalence of this insidious virus and safeguarding the health of future generations.

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