Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that affects both males and females. There are more than 100 types of the virus. In fact, certain types of HPV cause common warts on the hands and feet. Most types of HPV are harmless, do not cause any symptoms, and go away on their own.
There are about 40 types of HPV that affect the genital area. Up to 80% of males and females who have had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact will be infected with at least one type of genital HPV at some time. Certain ‘high risk’ genital HPV types can sometimes lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
HPV infection is generally diagnosed by the presence of visible warts. However, many people exposed to the virus do not develop visible warts because their immune system keeps the virus under control. Therefore, HPV infection may be present without any signs. There is currently no blood test or swab test available to detect HPV infection.
Certain types of HPV affecting the cells in the cervix can be detected by pap smears. HPV infection has the potential to become cervical cancer if not treated, but most women recover completely without treatment or cancer.
The HPV infection itself cannot be treated. In most people, the virus is cleared naturally in one to two years. Treatments are only available for the genital warts and cancers caused by the infection.
There is no cure for HPV infection, however treating visible warts as soon as they appear reduces the spread of the virus. Warts are more difficult to treat in a person with an impaired immune system.
The HPV virus is spread through direct skin to skin contact with an infected person, most commonly through sexual contact.
The virus can be passed from person to person even if there are no visible warts. Warts that occur elsewhere on the body are caused by different types of HPV and contact does not seem to cause genital warts. If visible warts are treated as soon as they appear, the spread of HPV is reduced. The virus can live in the skin for many years and during that time can be passed on through sexual contact. Even though the warts are gone, HPV can still be living in the genital skin and it is still possible to transmit the virus to your partner. This explains why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people. It is unknown how long a person with HPV infection remains infectious or can pass the infection on to a sexual partner. Spermicidal foams, creams and gels have not been shown to have any effect against HPV.
HPV may also be passed from mother to baby during labour and birth.
Preventing the spread of HPV involves having safe sex, regular Pap smears and being vaccinated if eligible.
The use of condoms for sex is encouraged. Using condoms will reduce the spread of HPV but will not completely remove the risk. Spermicidal foams, creams and gels have not been shown to have any effect against HPV.
All women over the age of 18 need to have a Pap smear within 2 years of becoming sexually active, and every 2 years thereafter to monitor any changes to cells in the cervix. You may be sexually active before the age of 18, but Pap smears are not recommended before that time. Regular Pap smears are important for all females (whether vaccinated against HPV or not) as the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. Pap smears detect abnormal changes to cells in the cervix so treatment can start before cancer develops.
Some types of HPV infection can be prevented. The vaccine protects against four types of HPV for more than 90% of uninfected women who are vaccinated. The vaccine protects against infection with the types of HPV which cause more than 70% of cases of cervical cancer. The vaccine will not prevent all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Immunisation against HPV is recommended as part of the National School Based HPV Vaccination Program. In 2016 the funded vaccine is available for all Year 7 and Year 8 students.
The vaccine is given as 3 doses over a six month period (initial dose, 2 months and 6 months). The vaccine is most effective when all three doses have been given. Missed doses should be given as soon as possible. A funded vaccine can be given by your doctor or vaccine service provider, however a consultation fee may be charged.
Immunisation is still recommended for people who have had sexual contact, even though they may have already been infected with one or more of the four types of HPV as the vaccine protects against all four HPV types. The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.
Worldwide, extensive clinical trial and post marketing safety surveillance data indicate that HPV vaccines are well tolerated and safe. The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety has not found any safety issues that would alter their recommendations for use of the HPV vaccine.
Contact your immunisation provider if you or your child has a reaction following vaccination which you consider serious or unexpected.
A confidential National HPV Vaccination Program Register has been established by the Australian Government to administer and collect data about the HPV Vaccination Program.
Most genital HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and people usually do not know they have the infection as their immune system clears the virus naturally. However, certain ‘high risk’ genital HPV types can sometimes lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
Most women who have HPV will clear the virus naturally and do not develop cervical cancer. In a small number of women HPV stays in the cells of the cervix. If the infection is not cleared, there is an increased risk of cervical cancer. It is important to have a Pap smear every two years so cell changes caused by HPV can be identified, checked and treated if necessary.
If you think you have warts, have been exposed to genital warts, or are worried about HPV infection, talk to your local doctor, sexual health clinic, family planning clinic or nearest public health unit. You can be immunised at your local doctor or medical centre. Check with your local council, community child health and community health centre regarding free immunisation clinics.
- School Immunisation Program
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance
- Sexual Health
- Genital warts and HPV fact sheet
- Cervical screening
- National HPV Vaccination Program (call Immunise Australia on 1800 671 811)
- National HPV Vaccination Program Register (or call 1800 478 734)
- National Cervical Cancer Screening