Page modified at: 21/02/2010
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus which is the cause of cervical cancer (types 16 and 18) and genital warts (types 6 and 11). In Europe there are 30,000 cases of cervical cancer per year and around 15,000 deaths. Genital warts is the most common sexually transmitted infection with around 250,000 cases diagnosed on Europe every year.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is spread via sexual contact. You get HPV by being sexually active with someone else who has it. It is very common and over half of all women who have sex will get infected with HPV at some time in their lifetime.
This is why the new UK HPV vaccine against cervical cancer is given to girls before they are sexually active.
How do I reduce the risk of catching HPV?
- Male and female condoms, when used correctly, can help protect against STIs
- Before you have sex, talk to your partner about using condoms
- Use condoms every time you have vaginal or anal sex
- If you have oral sex, use a dam
- All teenage girls should get vaccinated before they become sexually active
What is the HPV Vaccine?
What the HPV vaccine protects against
The HPV vaccine protects against the two strains of HPV (16 and 18) that cause cervical cancer in over 70% of women. It does not protect against any other sexually transmitted infections or against pregnancy. Because the HPV vaccine does not protect against ALL cervical cancers, it is really important for all girls to have cervical screening later in life. The NHS cervical screening programme will continue after the introduction of the HPV vaccine (cervical screening in England is offered from the age of 25).
Is the vaccine safe?
The vaccine has undergone rigorous safety testing as part of the licensing process required in the UK and other European countries.
Who’s the vaccine for?
The HPV vaccination programme started in September 2008 with all 12- to 13-year-old and 17- to 18-year-old girls being offered the vaccine. A catch-up programme was also announced at this time with 13- to 18-year-old girls being offered the vaccine over the following two academic years. As a result of the success of these programmes, an accelerated catch-up programme was announced in December 2008 so that all girls born on or after 1 September 1990 could be protected before the end of the academic year 2009/10.
How do I get it?
It will depend how old you are and where you live. Younger girls are most likely to be given the vaccine at school, and older girls might be offered the vaccine through their GP.
Do I have to have it?
Vaccination is not compulsory – consent will be needed before the vaccination. For 12- to 13-year-olds it is most likely that a consent form signed by your parent or guardian will need to be supplied before the vaccine is given. Girls aged 16 and over are legally able to consent for themselves.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most HPV infections are harmless or cause genital warts, however some types can cause cervical cancer.
Genital warts appear from 3 weeks after the virus was contracted but can occur much later as the virus lives in the host’s skin. Warts are diagnosed on examination rather than by a specific test.
Most HPV infections clear up by themselves, but in some people the infection can last a long time. HPV infects the cells of the surface of the cervix where it can stay for many years without you knowing. The HPV virus can damage these cells leading to changes in their appearance. Over time, these changes can develop into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix – which is the entrance to the womb. 99% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The purpose of cervical screening (testing) is to detect these changes, which, if picked up early enough, can be treated to prevent cancer happening. If they are left untreated, cancer can develop and may lead to serious illness and death.
Changes to the cervix in women are diagnosed on smear tests which are carried out in the United Kingdom as part of the National Cervical Screening Programme. Even if a woman has been vaccinated, she will still have to go for smears as the vaccine does not protect against all cervical cancers. Smears start at the age of 25 in England (20 in Scotland and Wales) and discontinue at 64 years of age. They should be done every 3 to 5 years and women can check with their GP if they are due a smear. Modern smear tests can detect not only abnormal cells from the cervix but also the commons strains of HPV which cause cervical cancer.
Men may experience:
* Warts on or around the penis and scrotum and anus
Women may experience:
Warts on or around the vulva and anus
Breakthrough bleeding or bleeding after sex
How do I reduce the risk of passing HPV on to others?
Practicing safer sex will help reduce transmission (though not eliminate it).
How do I get treatment for HPV?
NHS:Treatment is free on the NHS from genitourinary medicine clinics, sexual health clinics, some contraception clinics, some GPs and pharmacies. You can find a clinic to help with HPV and genital warts by phoning directory enquiries and asking for genitourinary medicine, sexually transmitted disease or venereal disease or locate one using our NHS Genitourinary Medicine Clinic page in the Sexual Health Section of our website.
PRIVATE:Alternatively you can have confidential private testing and treatment. Telephone 0345 2303386 or use the Confidential Text Service 07786202070
Warts: There are various treatments for warts which have similar cure rates. Warts can recur after treatment as the virus lives in the skin.
Cervical Neoplasia: Abnormal smears should be managed by a colposcopy specialist. This is arranged if you have an abnormal smear. Your smear result should not affect your partner.