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Study reignites controversy over HPV cancer vaccine

By Mark Pownall

Controversy over the Department of Health's choice of HPV vaccine has been reignited by evidence of a ‘rapid and marked decline' in cases of genital warts in Australia.

The fall follows a programme of vaccinating young women with Gardasil, the vaccine that the Department of Health rejected for the UK programme because it was less cost effective.

Gardasil protects against four types of HPV virus, including two that cause genital and anal warts. Cervarix, the vaccine used in the NHS programme, protects only against HPV 16 and 18 which cause cervical cancer.

In the Australian study the number of cases of genital warts in young women attending a large sexual health centre fell by 25% in 2008, the year after vaccination with the quadrivalent vaccine began.

This was against a trend from 2004 to 2007 of a 1.8% quarterly increase in the number of genital warts. There was also a small fall (5% per quarter) in cases among heterosexual men.

Sexual health specialists argue that it costs £23m to treat the 100,000 cases of genital warts that occur in the UK every year, and that preventing them would be cost effective.

Dr Colm O'Mahony, consultant in GU medicine at the Countess of Chester Hospital said: ‘This makes a mockery of the DH decision. We told them they would get early financial returns if they chose a vaccine that prevented genital warts. But we thought it would take a few years. This study shows you start preventing warts in the year after vaccination of young women starts.'

‘Australia is looking to eradicate genital warts and their only concern will be unvaccinated UK backpackers.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘The national HPV vaccination programme has always been about cervical cancer protection. Cervarix scored higher than the competitor in the rigorous adjudication process and was therefore selected as the best choice for the programme.'

The Gardasil vaccination programme in Australia has led to a rapid decline in cases of genital warts The Gardasil vaccination programme in Australia has led to a rapid decline in cases of genital warts

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