How vaccines can help prevent cancer

Cancer Council NSW
Vaccines can prevent some forms of cancer.

Most of us are familiar with vaccines that prevent common illnesses like chickenpox and the flu. But did you know there are vaccines that can prevent some forms of cancer?

Vaccines help the body to fight and destroy harmful germs such as bacteria and viruses. They can also protect against certain viruses that can cause cancer.

HPV (human papillomavirus) and hepatitis B are two cancer-causing viruses that can be prevented by vaccination.

HPV

HPV is a commonly sexually transmitted infection in both men and women. It usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself, but it can sometimes result in serious illness.

HPV causes:

  • almost all cases of cervical cancer
  • 90% of anal cancers
  • 78% of vaginal cancers
  • 25% of vulva cancers
  • 50% of penile cancers
  • 60% of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)
  • around 90% of genital warts.

HPV can be prevented through vaccination. The first HPV vaccines protected against two high risk types (16 and 18), that cause about 70% of cervical cancers and 77% of the other HPV-related cancers in women and men.

The HPV vaccine that’s now the most commonly used in Australia – Gardasil 9 – protects against seven high-risk HPV types (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58), which cause 90% of cervical cancers in women and around 90% of other HPV-related cancers in women and men. It also protects against two non-cancerous types (types 6 and 11), which cause 90% of genital warts.

All children aged 12-13 are offered the vaccine for free through the National Immunisation Program Schedule. It’s also free to anyone under 20 if they weren’t vaccinated at school.

The vaccine does not protect against all types of cervical cancer, so if you’ve been vaccinated, it’s still important to have regular cervical screening tests.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus that affects the liver cells. When the immune system attacks the virus, the liver gets inflamed. Inflammation damages the liver and increases the risk of primary liver cancer.

Infection with hepatitis B is the biggest known risk factor for developing primary liver cancer in Australia. People with chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C infections have a 20 – 100 times increased risk of developing primary liver cancer.

Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, semen or other body fluids. The most common way is from mother to baby during birth.

Vaccination can protect against the spread of hepatitis B and is recommended for at-risk people. They include:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • people from South-East Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands
  • sexually active partners of people with hepatitis B
  • people living in a household with someone with hepatitis B
  • people receiving blood transfusions
  • people who inject drugs.

The Hepatitis B vaccine is free for babies, people aged under 20, adult refugees and humanitarian entrants, through the National Immunisation Program.

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