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
- 65% of vaginal cancers
- 50% of vulvar cancers
- 35% 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 Gardasil vaccine protects against the two high-risk HPV types (types 16 and 18), which cause 70% of cervical cancers in women and 90% of all HPV-related cancers in men. It also protects against two low-risk types (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 is available free of charge through the school-based National HPV Vaccination Program and involves three injections in the upper arm. The vaccine works best over a six-month period, with the second dose of the vaccine 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 program invites women aged 18 and 69 to take a Pap test every two years to check for abnormal cell that if left untreated may develop into cervical cancer.
From late 2017, the Pap test will be replaced with the HPV test. The HPV test can detect high-risk HPV infections in cervical cells, sometimes before they cause abnormal cells to develop. Women aged 25-74 will be invited to take the HPV test every five years as part of the "Renewal" program. (Pap test screening has been shown to be of very modest benefit to women aged under 25, compared with the potential long-term benefits of HPV vaccination and testing.)
The new program is expected to reduce cervical cancer incidence and mortality by up to 20%.
For now, women are urged to continue having their two-yearly Pap tests through the national screening program.
1) HPV Vaccine
Find out more about cervical cancer