I am often asked the question ‘would you vaccinate your children against the HPV virus?’ or ‘should we wait to vaccinate our children against HPV until they are sexually active?’. I set out to write this blog to teach you all about HPV and what it means so that you can make the right choice for your family. I have.
Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that affects both females and males. There are more than 100 types. Most types of HPV are harmless and go away on their own.
About 40 types of HPV are known as genital HPV. Up to 80% of females and males will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.
Genital HPV types may be “high-risk” types (such as HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58) that have been shown to cause some forms of cancer, or “low-risk” types (such as HPV types 6 and 11) that can cause genital warts and usually benign (abnormal but non-cancerous) changes in the cervix.
HPV is easily spread through direct skin-to-skin contact. Anyone who has any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact could get genital HPV.
Will I know if I have it? It is unlikely you will ever know unless you get tested as most people with genital HPV will have no signs or symptoms. This means you could pass it on to someone else without even knowing it.
In most people, HPV is harmless. However, it could lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva or anus.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix begin to grow out of control. If left undetected, these abnormalities can develop into tumours and spread.
How is cervical cancer detected?
Cervical cancer can be detected in two ways. A woman may present to her doctor with symptoms due to the cancer, or the cancer may be detected in its early stages through cervical screening – which used to be referred to as the ‘pap smear’. This test could save your life.
Because HPV is a common virus and is so easily passed on, it is quite difficult to prevent yourself from being infected and hence even if you are careful you could still get the virus and be at risk of cervical cancer.
Is there any way that we prevent HPV?
Condoms can help reduce the risk of genital HPV and also provide protection against other sexually transmitted diseases. However, because HPV is transmitted through genital skin contact (not just sexual intercourse) condoms don’t provide 100% protection against HPV.
For females, your risk of developing cervical cancer can be reduced with cervical screening. Discuss the Cervical Screening Test (CST) with your Doctor.
There are vaccines available for certain types of HPV and is now part of the standard Immunisation Schedule. Vaccination could reduce your risk or your children’s risk of certain cancers which is a huge step forward in reducing the rates of HPV associated cancers. It should be noted that Vaccination does not protect against all HPV types that could cause cervical cancer; therefore, it is important women continue with cervical screening.