If you’ve heard of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), it will likely have been because HPV can cause cervical cancer, or because of one of the other health conditions HPV is associated with.
There is now a vaccine for HPV which is offered to young people in schools to prevent the spread of the virus and help reduce cases of cervical cancer.
What are the types of HPV?
There are more than 100 types of HPV but the majority of these do not cause cervical cancer. The highest risk types are 16 and 18 which cause around 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Other types, particularly 6 and 11, can cause genital warts. The HPV vaccine currently available in Australia protects against these high-risk types of HPV.
How common is HPV in Australia?
HPV is a common virus and can often have no symptoms, making it hard to know if you have it, and easy to pass it on without knowing. Around 8 out of 10 women will become infected with genital HPV during their lifetime.
How do people get HPV?
The most common way HPV is passed on is through skin-to-skin sexual contact. This is not specific to penetrative sex, or heterosexual sex, and can occur between two partners of the same sex. Skin contact of the genitals, as well as oral and anal sex, and sharing sex toys can transmit HPV. Some types of HPV can cause other conditions including genital warts and cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, penis, and some head and neck cancers.
How can you prevent HPV?
Getting vaccinated against HPV is the first thing to consider to look after yourself and protect others from the virus.
There are also a number of ways you can protect yourself and your partner during sex. Unlike most sexually transmitted infections, HPV is not passed through body fluids but by skin contact, so using dental dams, gloves and condoms (on a penis or dildo) helps prevent transmission of the virus. Using an appropriate water-based lube can help so that dams, gloves and condoms don’t break. Not sharing sex toys and ensuring toys are cleaned properly after use is also important.
It is also essential for all women or anyone with a cervix aged 25-74 to get regular cervical screening tests. This test detects HPV and can help prevent cervical cancer by allowing for early treatment of cervical abnormalities.