HPV (also known as Human Papillomavirus) is a really common virus that affects people of all sexes and ages. In fact, if you’re sexually active, it’s likely you could have genital HPV at one point or other in your life. There are more than 100 different types of the virus. Luckily, most of them are relatively harmless and will go away on their own.
However, there are some types of ‘high risk’ genital HPV which we should be careful about. They can result in cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat. This occurs as, over time, HPV can cause pre-cancerous changes in infected cells, which can eventually lead them to mutate into cancer cells over a number of years.
How do you know if you’ve got HPV?
The most common signs of HPV are warts on the hands or feet and about 40 types of HPV can affect the genital area. (depending on which type of HPV). However, most types of HPV don’t actually cause symptoms or signs. Even when they do, many people who have the virus won’t have warts as their immune system keeps the virus under control.
While there isn’t actually a blood test to detect HPV, certain types of HPV affecting the cells in the cervix can be detected through cervical screening tests.
How does it spread?
To catch HPV, you need direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. This means 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’s why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people. It is not known how long a person with HPV can remain infectious.
Vaccination and HPV
Vaccination plays a crucial role in both preventing the spread of HPV and ensuring your individual safety. The vaccine protects against several types of HPV (including those that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases among women). The vaccine is given to children (both male and female) in Grade 7, or at an equivalent age. It is free through the School Immunisation Program. If you or your child didn’t receive this vaccine, there’s a free catch-up vaccine for people under 19.
For most people, two doses of the HPV vaccine are required with a gap of 6 months or more between doses. For those aged 15 to 19 years of age or who have certain conditions which result in a compromised immune system a 3-dose schedule is required (with a 2 months gap and then a 6-month gap between doses). Missed doses should be given as soon as possible. The vaccine is most effective when all doses have been given.
Immunisation is definitely 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 that the vaccine protects against.
The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.
School Immunisation Program
To establish long-term health starting from childhood, the Queensland School Immunisation Program offers free vaccination for adolescents , in Year 7 and 10. One of the vaccinations offered in Year 7 is for HPV.
Before your child is immunised, they will be given information about the disease, the benefits of immunisation, details of common side effects and a vaccination consent card.
If your child has missed a school immunisation, ask your GP about a catch-up vaccine. Keep in mind that while the vaccines are free, a consultation fee might be charged.
Other ways to combat HPV
Regular Cervical Screening
To combat the effects of HPV, it is recommended women between 25 and 74 have a cervical screening test every 5 years, with a final test between 70 and 74 years. Women 75 or over can still request a subsidised Cervical Screening Test.
Using condoms will also reduce your chance of catching HPV through sexual contact, but it doesn’t completely remove your risk. Spermicides do not have any effect against HPV.
Find out more
If you’re keen to know more about other ways to protect yourself and others through vaccination, the Immunisation Schedule Queensland can guide you through what vaccinations are required to make sure you have the best protection through all stages of life. To find out what vaccinations you need or have had, you can click here.