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HPV stands for human papillomavirus and is the name of a very common group of viruses. There are over 100 types of HPV viruses (each with their own number) and about 40 infect the genital tract and are linked to cancer. The HPV virus is so common that 4 out of 5 of us may get a type of HPV virus at some point in our lives.
Cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer worldwide. The timespan between infection and the development of the pre-cancerous cells varies from between 1-10 years.
HPV is passed on from one person to another through intimate sexual contact with an infected individual, usually without the person ever knowing it. The virus enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin.
There is no treatment for HPV itself, but conditions it causes can be treated – for example, genital warts, cell changes (abnormal cells), or cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts & cervical cancer, as well as some other cancers that affect the mouth, throat, vagina, penis and anus. It does not protect against all types of HPV.
Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. However, they do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.
Getting protected can also prevent infected women passing it onto their newborn babies.
Countries at risk
HPV is prevalent all over the world, and the fact that it is passed through intimate genital-skin contact, can lie undetected and has no specific symptoms, means it is highly contagious. The HPV virus is so common that 4 out of 5 of us may get a type of HPV virus at some point in our lives.
You cannot fully protect yourself against HPV, but there are things that can help:
- The HPV vaccine is highly effective & protects up to 9 types of HPV (types 6, 11, 16 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 & 58) that cause over 70% of cervical cancers, most HPV related penile cancers, a significant proportion of anal cancers and 90% of genital warts. The vaccine cannot cause cancer or other HPV related illnesses.
- Condoms can help protect you against HPV, but as HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area, they do not cover all the genitals so do not completely get rid of the risk.
- Cervical screening actively tests for HPV and can identify any changes to cervical cells (abnormal cells) early, before they develop.
Signs and Symptoms
High-risk HPV has no symptoms. This may be concerning, but if you go for cervical screening (a smear test) when invited, it can detect high-risk HPV virus and changes early, before it develops into cancer.
Low risk HPV can lead to genital warts. Whilst these strains are not linked to cancers, genital warts can be unpleasant and may require medical treatment.