Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

The Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that affects both males and females. There are more than 100 different types of the virus. Up to 80% of people who’ve been sexually active involving genital contact will be infected with at least one type of genital HPV at some time.

Most types of HPV are harmless and will go away on their own. However, there are ‘high risk’ genital HPV types that can sometimes lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat. HPV can cause genital warts and it can also be passed from mother to baby during labour and birth.

Signs and symptoms

The most common symptom of HPV is warts on the hands and feet or genitals (depending on the type). However, most types of HPV don’t cause symptoms. Even when they do, many people with the virus don’t have warts as their immune system keeps the virus under control.

While there is currently no blood test to detect HPV, certain types of HPV affecting the cells in the cervix can be detected by cervical screening tests.

How it spreads

HPV spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, and it is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact. Even if an infected person has no visible warts, or those warts have been and gone, HPV can still be living in the skin, and it is still possible to transmit the virus. That is why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people. It is not known how long a person with HPV can remain infectious.

Prevention

HPV can be prevented through:

  • Vaccination – the HPV vaccine is funded for both males and females in a year 7 school program and catch-up up to 19 years of age. The HPV vaccine is given as a 2 dose schedule (with an interval of at least 6 months between doses). If a person is immunocompromised or 15 to 19 years of age, they need to receive a 3 dose schedule (with 0, 2 and 6 month intervals). The vaccine is most effective when all doses have been given. Missed doses should be given as soon as possible. The vaccine protects against those types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases among women.
  • Regular cervical screening – women aged 25 to 70 are recommended to have a cervical screening test every 5 years, with a final test at 70 to 74 years.
  • Engaging in safe sex – using condoms will reduce your chance of catching HPV through sexual contact, but it will not completely remove the risk. Spermicides (this is a form of birth control to stop the sperm from reaching an egg) do not have any effect against HPV.

Immunisation against HPV is recommended as part of the Queensland School Immunisation Program. 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 1 or more of the 9 types of HPV as the vaccine protects against all 9 HPV types. The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.

Treatment

While there is no cure for HPV infection, in most people, the virus clears naturally after a year or two.

If you get symptoms or have a reason to believe you have HPV, see your doctor. Treatments are available for genital warts and cancers caused by HPV.