What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illness.
HPV is responsible for:
- almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer
- 90% of anal cancers
- 78% of vaginal cancers
- 25% of vulvar cancers
- 50% of penile cancers
- 60% of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). 1
The virus is spread through intimate contact with genital skin and can infect both men and women. Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV as they do not cover all of the genital skin. You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs or from only one sexual partner.
HPV and cancer
There are different HPV types - some are considered "low-risk" and others "high-risk". Low-risk HPV types cause genital warts and do not cause cancer. Some high-risk HPV types can cause serious illness including cancer.
In most cases the immune system clears HPV from the body. However, there are times when the body does not clear HPV: usually when the infection is with high-risk types. We call this 'persistent' HPV infection.
Persistent HPV infection can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix which may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated. Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, persistent infection also causes less common cancers affecting men and women, including anal, vulvar, vaginal, mouth/throat and penile cancers.
The first HPV vaccine protected against the two high-risk HPV types (types 16 and 18), which cause 70% of cervical cancers in women and 77% of all HPV-related cancers in men and women.
The HPV vaccine that is now most commonly used in Australia is Gardasil 9. It protects against seven high-risk HPV types (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58), which cause 90% of cervical cancers in women and around 90% of other HPV-related cancers in both men and women. Gardasil 9 also protects against two non-cancerous types (6 and 11) which cause 90% of genital warts.
All boys and girls aged 12-13 should have the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is most effective if given before exposure to HPV that is before sexual activity commences.
Gardasil 9 is available free of charge through the school-based National HPV Vaccination Program and involves injections in the upper arm. Those who receive a first dose before the age of 15 only require two doses, with the second dose given approximately six months after the first. For those who receive a first dose after the age of 15, the vaccine works best with three doses, with the second dose two months after the first, and the third dose four months after the second (at 0, 2 and 6 months).
Testing for HPV to prevent cervical cancer
Australia has one of the world's lowest rates of cervical cancer mortality, thanks to the effectiveness of our National Cervical Screening Program, introduced in 1991.
The Pap test was replaced with the HPV test in 2017. The HPV test can detect high-risk HPV infections in cervical cells, sometimes before they cause abnormal cells to develop. Women aged 25-74 are invited to take the HPV test every five years, instead of a Pap test every two years.
Cervical cancer is extremely rare in women under the age of 25 and the introduction of the HPV vaccine has been an effective means of protecting women against some of the leading causes of cervical cancer.
Cancer Council recommends that women of any age who have symptoms should see their doctor immediately.
1) HPV Vaccine
Find out more about cervical cancer