HPV (sometimes called the ‘wart virus’) is a virus that can cause genital warts and cervical (neck of the womb) cancer. There are more than 100 types of HPV, about 40 of which can affect the genital tract (penis, vagina and anus). Some HPV types can cause cervical cancer (called high risk HPV) and some can cause genital warts. The types that cause genital warts are called low risk HPV because they are a low risk for causing cervical cancer.
Almost all HPV is sexually transmitted. Most people are infected with HPV around the time they first start to have sex. HPV is transmitted through microscopic damage to the skin and while condoms protect against most sexually transmissible infections (STIs), they are not completely effective against HPV.
It is extremely common; up to 80% of people will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives. Research studies show that the highest rates of infection are in people aged between 18 and 28, and for most people the infection lasts for around 10 months before the immune system clears it (gets rid of it). This transient infection with HPV does not generally develop into cervical cancer. In some people the immune system does not clear the virus successfully, in which case they are said to have a ‘persistent’ infection. It is the women who have a persistent infection who are at risk of developing cervical cancer.
Vaccination protects against the most common high risk HPV types (HPV 16 and HPV 18), one or both of which are found in about 70% of cervical cancers.
Vaccination can also protect against two of the low risk type HPVs (HPV 6 and HPV 11), one or both of which are found in genital warts in about 90% of cases.
High risk HPV types are found in about 85% of anal cancers. HPV vaccination may help protect against anal cancer. Anal cancer can affect anybody, but is more common in men and women who practise anal sex.
The vaccine, called Gardasil®, was licensed in 2006 and is available from your doctor. This vaccine protects against HPV types 6,11,16,18. Another vaccine called Cervarix® was licensed in 2007; it protects against HPV types 16 and 18.
The vaccines are both safe and well-tolerated. The most common side effects are pain, redness and swelling at the injection site.
To be fully protected against the HPV types in the vaccine it is advised to have three injections over six months.
The best time to have the vaccination is before a person is infected with HPV, which means BEFORE their first experience of sexual intercourse (suggested age 10-15 years).
The vaccine is safe to give to people who are already having sex, and if a sexually active person has not yet been exposed to the types of HPV covered by the vaccine then the vaccine will be fully effective. However, it is likely that most people who are already sexually active will have been exposed to at least one type of HPV, so it won’t be protective for that specific HPV type.
The vaccine does not help clear pre-existing HPV infection.
Testing for the presence of HPV infection is not currently recommended, except where women have previously been treated for high-grade cervical pre-cancerous changes.
No. Women, whether they have been vaccinated or not, should continue to take part in the National Cervical Screening Program and have their Pap tests at the recommended screening times. Even though the vaccine protects against the two most common high risk HPV types which cause cervical cancer, it doesn’t cover all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
The Commonwealth Government has funded a National Immunisation Program to vaccinate 12-13 year old girls and boys via a school-based program. Boys aged 14-15 years can receive the vaccine as part of a catch-up program until the end of the 2014 school year. If you have missed a vaccination dose from the school-based program check with your GP or nurse about getting the missed dose.
Gardasil® is licensed in Australia for women aged 9-45 and for men aged 9-26. Cervarix® is licensed in Australia for women aged 10-45.
If you have not received a vaccination via the National Immunisation Program, then ask your doctor or nurse about being vaccinated.
This may be particularly relevant if you are a man who has sex with men, or if you are coming out of a long-term relationship and thinking of finding a new sexual partner.
The vaccine can be administered via your GP but you will need to pay for the vaccine.
• Contact the Family Planning NSW Talkline on 1300 658 886 or go to www.fpnsw.org.au/talkline
• NRS (for deaf) 133 677
• Or visit your nearest Family Planning clinic
• The Australian Government Department of Health and Aging website has information on the HPV Vaccination Program: www.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/immunise-hpv
The information in this Factsheet has been provided for educational purposes only. FPNSW has taken every care to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date at the time of publication. Individuals concerned about any personal reproductive or sexual health issue are encouraged to seek advice and assistance from their health care provider or visit a Family Planning clinic.
Reviewed: May 2013 | FPNSW 05/13