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.
About 40 types of HPV are known as genital HPV as they affect the genital area. Up to 80% of people will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.1 Anyone who has had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact could get genital HPV.
Genital HPV types may be “high-risk” types (such as HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58) or “low-risk” types (such as HPV types 6 and 11). “High-risk” HPV types can cause cervical cancer and some vaginal, vulval and anal cancers. “Low-risk” HPV types can cause genital warts. Both the “high-risk” and “low-risk” types of HPV can cause abnormal changes.
HPV is easily spread through direct skin to skin contact. Anyone who has had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact could get genital HPV. That means it’s possible to get the virus without having intercourse. And, because many people who have HPV may not show any signs or symptoms, they can transmit the virus without even knowing it. A person can be infected with more than one type of HPV.
In most people, HPV is harmless and has no symptoms, but in some people the virus may persist and lead to diseases of the genital area, including genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva and anus. Genital HPV infection is not something to feel embarrassed or ashamed about.
Because HPV is a common virus and is so easily passed on, it is quite difficult to prevent yourself from being infected.
Up to 80% of males and females will be infected with at least one genital type of HPV at some time in their lives.1 But remember that most people clear HPV infection from their body without any symptoms or health problems.
If used correctly, 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. Talk to your doctor for more information.
There are vaccines available for certain types of HPV. Vaccination does not protect against all HPV types that could cause cervical cancer; therefore, it is important women continue with cervical screening. Talk to your healthcare professional for more information.
Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix (which is the lower part of the uterus, or womb, situated at the top of the vagina). Cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix begin to multiply out of control and form pre-cancerous abnormalities. If undetected, these abnormalities can develop into tumors and spread into surrounding tissue.
While factors such as the oral contraceptive pill, smoking, a woman’s immune system and the presence of other infections seem to play a part, a woman has to have been infected with certain “high-risk” HPV types for cervical cancer to develop. “High-risk” types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58 are responsible for up to 90% of all cervical cancers.
DOES EVERYONE WITH HPV GET CERVICAL CANCER?
Fortunately, no. For the majority of people who have HPV, the body’s defences are enough to clear the virus. For women who don’t clear certain “high-risk” types of the virus, abnormal changes can occur in the cells lining the cervix that can lead to pre-cancers and even develop into cervical cancer later in life.
Most often, the development of pre-cancer to cervical cancer takes a number of years, although in rare cases it happens more quickly. That’s why early detection is so important. Talk to your doctor about cervical screening.
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.
HOW ARE ABNORMAL CERVICAL CELLS AND PRE-CANCERS TREATED?
Abnormal cervical cells can be divided into low-grade and high-grade abnormalities. Most low-grade abnormalities will clear without causing any lasting effects.
Occasionally, high-grade changes will progress to cervical cancer if left untreated. This usually takes a number of years, although in rare cases it can happen sooner.
If a woman has high-grade pre-cancerous changes detected through cervical screening, she will be referred for colposcopy.
In many cases, during the colposcopy a small piece of tissue (a biopsy) will be taken from the cervix. If the biopsy confirms the woman has a high-grade cervical abnormality (referred to as CIN 2 or 3), she will most likely be offered surgery to remove the affected part of the cervix. This can be done using a variety of ways including, amongst other techniques, surgical excision and laser removal. This usually requires a day stay in hospital.
HOW IS CERVICAL CANCER TREATED?
If detected early, cervical cancer can be treated, but as with any medical condition, prevention or early detection is always best. When, after colposcopy and biopsy, a woman is found to have cancer of the cervix (rather than a pre-cancer), she will usually be referred to a specialist cancer gynecologist for further assessment and management.
Treatment for cervical cancer usually involves surgery to remove the cancer (including local excision, hysterectomy) and/or radiotherapy with or without additional chemotherapy depending on the size or stage of the tumor.