Researchers in Australia have found that the vaccine that protects against cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV) also prevents an uncommon but incurable childhood respiratory disease. The findings, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, suggest that the chronic and difficult-to-treat condition, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, is disappearing in Australian children as a result of the nation’s highly successful HPV vaccination programme. “This is a world-first finding of evidence that the HPV vaccine has actually prevented recurrent respiratory papillomatosis cases,” said study author Julia Brotherton of Victorian Cytology Service in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s really exciting that we finally have a way to prevent this terrible disease. It adds to the list of strong reasons why you as a parent should choose to vaccinate your child,” Brotherton added. The condition is thought to occur in children when HPV (specifically, HPV type 6 or 11) is spread from mother to child around the time of birth. In some children, the virus can cause wart-like, non-cancerous growths called papillomas to develop in the respiratory tract, eventually making it difficult to breathe.

The condition can be life-threatening, and repeated surgeries are usually required to keep the airway clear. The researchers reported the initial results from a nationwide surveillance programme in Australia created to monitor the disease, building on an existing programme that monitors rare pediatric diseases using reports from clinicians.

Seven cases of juvenile-onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis were reported in 2012, the surveillance programme’s first full year. The number of new cases reported annually declined over the next five years. Clinicians reported just one case in the entire country in 2016.

None of the mothers of the children who were diagnosed with the disease from 2012-2016 had been vaccinated against HPV prior to their pregnancy. The study showed that in Australia, where HPV vaccination rates are high, new cases of the disease in children declined between 2012 and 2016, suggesting an additional benefit from HPV immunisation, which also protects against cancer-causing types of the virus.