In 2018 alone, more than 500,000 women across the globe were diagnosed with cervical cancer, making it the fourth most common cancer among women. But promising news has emerged out of Australia: it’s on track to become the first country in the world to effectively eliminate the disease, according to a new study published in the Lancet.
The new study has predicted the incidence of cervical cancer in Australia—where seven out of 100,000 women are currently diagnosed with the disease—will fall to fewer than six new cases out of 100,000 by 2020, a rate low enough for cervical cancer to be classified as rare. By 2028, the study found, there will be fewer than four new cases per 100,000 women; by 2066 the annual incidence of cervical cancer will be fewer than one new case per 100,000 women, reports Aisha Dow of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Australia is not the only developed country to witness dramatic decreases in cervical cancer rates. In the United States, for instance, the incidence of the disease dropped by 50 percent between 1975 and 2014, thanks to increases in screenings for cervical cancer. Data from 2011 to 2015 indicated that the number of new cases of cervical cancer was 7.4 per 100,000 women per year in the U.S.
But the authors of the new study attribute Australia’s notable success in reducing cervical cancer rates to the country’s comprehensive preventative care programs. In 1991, Australia began recommending that women between the ages of 18 and 70 receive a pap smear every two years. Rates of cervical cancer in the country subsequently dropped by 50 percent among women older than 25, according to the study authors. In 2007, Australia was among the first countries in the world to introduce a nationally funded human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine program; HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, causes “virtually all cases of cervical cancer,” according to the National Cancer Institute.
The vaccination was offered for free to girls between the ages of 12 and 13, and the program was later expanded to boys. The vaccine protects against not only cervical cancer, but also other HPV-linked conditions, like genital warts and cancers of the throat, penis, anus, vulva and vagina. By 2016, 79 percent of Australian girls and 73 percent of boys who turned 16 had been vaccinated.
Last year, the country shifted its recommendation from pap smears every two years to HPV screenings every five years for women between the ages of 25 and 74. According to CNN’s Nina Avramova, the new tests are better able to “find cell abnormalities from HPV infections before these have surfaced.”
To arrive at their predictions, the study authors modelled data on HPV vaccinations, the natural history of the disease and cervical screenings. Ian Frazer, an immunologist who developed the HPV vaccine, told the Guardian’s Lisa Martin that the team’s findings make him feel “very proud.”
“[The elimination of cervical cancer] wasn’t something that I expected would happen quite that quickly,” he said.
But the study authors stress that for cervical cancer to continue its downward trajectory in Australia, the country should continue vaccination and screening programs. And a major challenge in the future will be combatting cervical cancer in low and middle-income countries, where 90 percent of deaths from the disease occur because early screening programs are not available.
“Cervical cancer incidence in low-income and middle-income countries could also be substantially reduced through a combination of screening and vaccination,” the study authors write, “however, major initiatives are required to achieve high coverage of vaccination and cervical screening.”