The UK’s cervical cancer immunisation programme may offer better protection than initially thought after research found the strains of HPV targeted by the vaccine are responsible for a higher number of cases than expected.

Earlier studies indicate that 70% of cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18, and it is these strains against which GlaxoSmithKline and Merck’s cervical cancer vaccines Cervarix and Gardasil offer protection.

But researchers at the Health Protection Agency, the University of Manchester and the Manchester Royal Infirmary have found that HPV 16 and 18 are actually responsible for a greater number - between 73% and 77% - of cases, suggesting that the vaccine could slash rates from about 3,000 to less than 700 a year.

According to HPA epidemiologist Kate Soldan the findings, which are published in the British Journal of Cancer, indicate that if vaccine uptake is good, “the HPV vaccine should prevent the majority of cases of cervical cancer in this country”.