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Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus

WHAT IS HUMAN PAPILLOMA VIRUS?

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of related viruses which are very common in humans. There are over a hundred types of HPV which can affect humans. Most HPV types are harmless, don’t cause any symptoms, and go away naturally without treatment.

About forty of these HPV types affect the genital area. Genital HPV is sexually transmissible and is a very common sexually transmissible infection.  Over 80% of people will have at least one type of HPV at some time in their lives. 

Genital HPV types fall into two categories:

  • Low risk HPV types which cause most genital warts and can cause some low-level cell changes. 
  • High risk types that can cause some cancers if the infection persists.

WHAT CANCERS ARE CAUSED BY HPV? 

CERVICAL CANCER

HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. Two HPV types: 16 and 18, are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer.

ANAL CANCER

HPV causes about 95% of anal cancer. HPV type 16 causes most anal cancers.

OROPHARYNGEAL CANCERS (Cancer of the throat, tongue, and tonsils)

70% of oropharyngeal cancer are caused by HPV. Half of these cancers are caused by HPV type 16.

RARER CANCERS

HPV causes about 65% of vaginal cancer, 50% of vulval cancer, and 35% of penile cancer. Most of these are caused by HPV type 16.

HOW DO YOU GET HPV?

HPV is passed on through sexual activity involving any kind of genital contact. Anyone who has ever had any kind of sexual contact can be infected with HPV. Since HPV usually causes no symptoms, and most often clears naturally by itself, most people will have HPV without realizing it. It can also remain dormant and people can have HPV even if years have passed since they had sex. Even those with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV.

HPV AND GENITAL WARTS

Having genital warts does not mean you are at risk of cancer. Genital warts are caused by low-risk types of HPV which do not cause cancer. Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection in Australia. However, they are becoming much less common in young people since the introduction of the HPV vaccine which protects against the two HPV types that cause over 90% of genital warts. If genital warts do occur, they can be treated by doctors or nurses at a sexual health clinic. For further information about genital warts see SHFPACT’s Information Brochure on Genital Warts.

IS THERE A TEST FOR HPV?

HPV tests are only available in Australia in the form of Cervical Screening Tests. There are currently no other tests for HPV. 

TREATING HPV

There is currently no treatment for HPV. In most cases the immune system clears HPV from the body naturally over time and has no long-lasting effects. Most people with HPV have no symptoms and will never know they have it. If HPV is present in the cervix (detected by a Cervical Screening Test) and is causing changes in the cells then the affected area can be treated.

SOME PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO DEVELOP HPV-RELATED DISEASES THAN OTHERS

Men who have sex with other men are about 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only have sex with women.  People with weakened immune systems, including those who have HIV, are more likely than others to develop anal cancer. HIV positive people are also more likely to get severe cases of genital warts that are harder to treat.

ARE THERE WAYS TO LOWER MY CHANCES OF GETTING HPV?

  • There is a vaccine can protect against the HPV types that cause most genital warts and most cancers caused by HPV.
  • Condoms (if used with every sex act, from start to finish) may lower your chances of passing HPV to a partner or developing HPV-related diseases. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
  • Because HPV is so common and usually invisible, the only sure wayto prevent it is not to have sexual contact. Even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV if their partner was infected with HPV.

THE HPV VACCINE

HPV vaccine

There is now a safe and highly effective vaccine available in Australia which protects against several HPV types. There are two vaccines available. The most commonly used one is Gardasil 9.

Gardasil 9 protects against nine HPV types including seven that cause 90% of cervical cancer (this includes HPV type 16 which causes most cases of cervical cancer as well as several other cancers) as well as the two HPV types that cause over 90% of genital warts. Gardasil 9 is given as a two-dose schedule up to 14 years of age and as a three-dose schedule over six months for those over 14 years.

The HPV vaccine is most effective when given before you have experienced any sexual activity. However, it can still be very useful given later.  

HOW DO I GET THE HPV VACCINE?

  • The HPV vaccine is given as a two dose schedule to all 12 and 13 year olds as part of the school based National Immunisation Program.
  • A free vaccination catch-up program is available for those aged 10 to 19  This is given as a three dose schedule and accessed through your GP.
  • The vaccine is available at no cost at the Junction Youth Health Centre for under 25 year olds, and at the Canberra Sexual Health Centre for men who have sex with men up to age 26.
  • For everyone else the vaccine is available for a cost through a GP or SHFPACT. If you have not had the HPV vaccine and are interested in having it talk to your GP or a sexual health doctor.

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Last Updated: September 2018. References: NCIRS Factsheet: HPV •  Understanding HPVNational Cancer Institute

SHFPACT Info Brochures & Publications