Announcement of the HPV Vaccine Programme

  • Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Speech notes for Helen Clark's announcement of the HPV Vaccine Programme. Manukau SuperClinic, Great South Road, Manurewa

Today I have the privilege of making a significant announcement about the prevention of cancer.

The cancer concerned is cervical cancer – a silent killer which came to particular prominence in the news in New Zealand in the late 1980s.

The then Judge Sylvia Cartwright had headed a Committee of Inquiry into the failure to treat women with abnormal cervical smears at National Women’s Hospital in Auckland.

Judge Cartwright’s findings and recommendations, published in 1988, not only led to a revolution in medical ethics and patient’s rights, but also to the establishment of a national screening programme to fight the disease.

It fell to me as Minister of Health in 1989 to announce that a $36 million cervical screening programme would be launched the following year.

While the programme and its operation has been the subject of some controversy over the years, it is also fair to say that it has had a considerable measure of success.

Even ten years ago, 180 New Zealand women each year lost their battle with cervical cancer. That figure has now reduced to around sixty each year, largely due to the increases in screening, driven through the national programme, and thus early detection of pre-cancerous conditions.

The national screening programme is, and must remain, a vital part of the fight against cervical cancer.

Only last September our government launched a new national campaign to promote it, focusing particularly on Maori and Pasifika women whose screening rates were much lower than those for other women.

Since the new promotional campaign was launched, there has been an increase in uptake of screening, and I thank all present today who have been involved in increasing uptake.

Now another weapon to fight cervical cancer has become available.

It is the weapon of immunisation, and it can be effective in preventing women from contracting the two types of the HPV virus which are responsible for around seventy per cent of all cervical cancers.

The HPV virus itself is a very common sexually transmitted infection.

About eight in every ten women who have ever been sexually active will have HPV at some stage of their life.

Normally there are no symptoms, and in 98 per cent of cases it clears by itself.

But in those cases where it doesn’t and isn’t treated, it can lead to the pre-cancerous cells which may develop into cervical cancer. That process could take ten to twenty years.

Each year in our country, around 160 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Each year the HPV infection causes a significant number of the 30,000 abnormal smear results which require further testing, diagnosis, stress, and what can be invasive treatment for women.

So the question arises – if we can through immunisation prevent women contracting the cause of most cervical cancers, should we commit to the vaccine?

The Labour-led Government’s response is: “Yes, we should”.

I am announcing today that we are committing new funding of $164.2 million over five years for a human papillomavirus immunisation programme. In addition, the Ministry of Health advises that it will invest up to another $13 million from within its baseline to the programme, making the total five year investment around $177 million.

Over this period, the vaccine will be free for more than 300,000 young women. Then, on an ongoing basis, the free vaccine will require government funding of around $16 million per year.

As I said previously, it can take 10 – 20 years for an HPV infection to turn into cervical cancer. With this vaccination, we do expect to see a reduction over time in the incidence of cervical cancer. Based on present numbers, around thirty lives a year will be saved.

In time too, we will see many fewer abnormal smear results. That will not only be of benefit to women, but it will also free up valuable health sector resources.

Large trials show that the vaccine against these two types of HPV is highly effective, and it is safe. There were more than 20,000 young and adult women involved in its trials, including New Zealanders. The vaccine has now been licensed in more than 100 countries, including Australia, Canada, the US, and the 27 European Union countries. Comprehensive vaccination programmes are rolling out in a number of these countries.

From September this year, the vaccine will be available for New Zealand girls and young women up to the age of 18. From next year, the HPV immunisation programme will be part of the regular immunisation schedule for 12 year old girls. That is because the vaccine needs to be given before a girl is sexually active to be most effective. The vaccine will give protection, provided that those receiving it have not been infected with the two HPV types before.

It is important to emphasise that women who receive this vaccine should still take part in the National Cervical Screening Programme and have regular smear tests from the age of twenty until the age of seventy.

That’s because while this vaccine protects against the most common causes of cervical cancer, it does not protect against all causes of cervical cancer.

My government’s philosophy is that where we can prevent disease and illness effectively, we should. We believe in giving New Zealanders the best possible opportunity to stay well.

We are doing this through many public health promotions, by reducing the cost of going to the family doctor and picking up prescriptions, and by introducing Primary Health Organisations.

The HPV immunisation programme we are announcing today is a continuation of our “prevention is better than cure” approach.

I would like to acknowledge today the contribution of our health workforce to health promotion, particularly those working in primary health and in public health. You are the backbone of any immunisation and screening programme’s success.

Working together on immunisation and on screening, we will save more women’s lives, and we will be more effective in fighting cervical cancer.

That’s what I am committed to, and I know you are too.