Human Papilloma Viruses (HPV) are common viruses that affects both females and males.
There are over 100 types of HPV which can affect humans. About 40 types of HPV are known as genital HPV as they affect the genital area. Some of these HPV types cause genital warts (see Genital Warts information sheet) whereas other types of HPV have no signs or symptoms.
HPV is highly contagious. It is estimated that up to 80% of people are infected with HPV at some time in their lifetime. Many people get their first HPV infection within the first few years of becoming sexually active. Where no signs or symptoms are present people can transmit the virus without knowing it. A person can also be infected with more than one type of HPV.
Anyone who has any kind of sexual activity involving genital skin to skin contact could get genital HPV. That means it’s possible to get the virus without having intercourse.
Image: Cervical cancer is caused by a virus - the human papillomavirus (HPV).
What does HPV have to do with cervical cancer?
A few types of HPV have been linked to causing abnormalities of the cervix, and in some cases the development of cancer of the cervix. When cancer of the cervix does develop, HPV is found in almost all cases. Having regular Pap tests is the best way to ensure that any changes are detected and managed to protect your health.
Research suggests that HPV may also be responsible for cancers in other parts of the body, such as the anus, penis and throat. Studies are continuing in this area.
Does everyone with HPV get cancer of the cervix?
No. For the majority of people who have HPV, the body’s defense system is enough to clear the virus. Up to 90% of infections are cleared within 36 months.
For women who don’t clear the virus, certain types can cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. This can lead to precancerous abnormalities which can develop into cervical cancer later in life if left untreated. Usually, the progression of pre-cancers into cervical cancer takes a number of years, although, in rare cases, it can happen more quickly. For this reason, early detection is very important so effective treatment can be given.
The HPV vaccine
Vaccination against HPV is available. Current vaccines protect against HPV types responsible for up to 70% of cases of cancer of the cervix. One of the two vaccines currently available also provides protection against HPV types responsible for 90% of genital warts.
Where do I get the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is now included in the National Immunization Schedule and all girls are offered the vaccination at age 12-13 through the schools based program (Year 7 in High School).
Vaccination involves 3 doses over a period of 6 months.
The vaccine is approved for use in boys but is not currently available through the National Immunisation Schedule.
For adults or boys the vaccine can be accessed through their doctor or through the SHFPACT clinic. There is a cost to the vaccination. A prescription is supplied and the vaccine is purchased from a pharmacy, then given by a doctor or nurse on a return appointment.
HPV vaccination & Pap tests
Regular Pap tests are still essential. Since vaccination does not protect against all types of HPV that cause cancer of the cervix vaccinated women need to continue with their regular Pap tests.
The current recommendations for cervical screening are that women should have a Pap test every two years from the age of 18 or two years after having sex, whichever is later.
Together, vaccination and regular Pap tests offer the best chance of preventing pre-cancerous cervical abnormalities and cervical cancer.