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Published: 27 January 2023

Cervical cancer elimination: what does it mean and can Ireland achieve it?

The HSE has marked Ireland’s commitment to making cervical cancer a rare disease with the publication in January 2023 of its Roadmap to Eliminate Cervical Cancer. Cervical cancer is the first cancer the World Health Organization (WHO) has committed to eliminate as a public health problem. Ireland is committed to reaching the three targets outlined in the WHO’s Global Strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer (Image 1 below). This work will mean that future generations will grow up in an Ireland with a low chance of getting cervical cancer.

Click here to #GetInformed about cervical cancer, elimination, and the services available to you.

What is elimination of a cancer as a public health problem and how is it different to eradication?

The difference comes down to the cause of disease. Eliminating cervical cancer as public health problem means that the number of people who get cervical cancer will become very low. It doesn’t mean that we will be able to get rid of cervical cancer entirely. This is because of what causes cervical cancer. We know that over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), specifically high-risk HPV. For this type of cervical cancer we have two methods of prevention: HPV vaccination and cervical screening. But there are still a small number of cervical cancers that cannot be linked to high-risk HPV. We need more research to understand how best we could screen for cervical cancers that are not linked to high-risk HPV.

Eradication, on the other hand, means that the number of people who will get a disease will be reduced to 0, and the disease will no longer circulate in the population. We have achieved eradication at a global level once before, when smallpox was eradicated through vaccination against the variola virus that causes the disease.

Why is elimination possible now – our lines of defence

In Ireland, we have implemented the two main measures that make elimination of cervical cancer possible: vaccination and screening. If we think about vaccination as the first line of defence against cervical cancer, then screening is the second line. The type of vaccine, screening test and cervical cancer treatments offered in Ireland are the highest quality available internationally and, vitally, they are available free through the health service. This places us in a position to be able to achieve the global targets set out for elimination. Reaching these targets also requires the services providing vaccination, screening and early treatment of cervical cancer to work together - and this is exactly what we are doing.

Together towards the global targets

In early 2022, the Cervical Cancer Elimination Partnership was formed to kick off a collective push to eliminate cervical cancer in Ireland. This partnership is made up of experts, policy makers, members of the public and patient advocates who work across the cervical cancer care pathway (HPV awareness, vaccination, screening, or treatment).

The partnership is working with cervical cancer experts in Australia who are using Irish data to estimate the date we can expect to reach the goal of elimination. We expect to have this date in 2023.

While experts and policy makers have a key role in reaching the global goals, they can’t do it alone. Everyone in Ireland has a part to play. This is why we are calling for everyone to #GetInformed about cervical cancer, the elimination campaign, and all the services available to them in Ireland.

Together we can reach the global targets, together we can eliminate cervical cancer in Ireland.

How you can support cervical cancer elimination:

We can all play an important role in reducing the impact of cervical cancer by ensuring we #GetInformed about cervical cancer elimination.