Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common cause of infection but usually causes no symptoms. Infection with some types of HPV can cause cancer of the neck of the womb (cervix), anus and penis. These cancers take many years to develop after the infection with HPV. Genital warts are also caused by HPV. Immunisation against HPV should dramatically reduce cervical, anal and penis cancer cases in the future and lead to fewer cases of genital warts. It may also reduce other cancers thought to be sometimes due to HPV. Immunisation against HPV was introduced in the UK for girls in 2008 and for boys in 2018. Women are still advised to attend for cervical screening tests, even if they have been immunised against HPV.
What is human papillomavirus?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a tiny germ that almost everyone gets at some point of their life. Usually it is fairly harmless: it causes warts on your fingers, for example. Sometimes it can cause warts on your genital area too: your penis or vagina. Although these can be unsightly, they're not painful or harmful. But they are contagious! You can spread them to sexual partners, or catch them from someone.
When is human papillomavirus a problem?
Scientists began to realise that people with some types of cancer were more likely to have an HPV infection. They noticed this particularly with cervical cancer, vulval cancer, anal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and penile cancer.
Eventually scientists made the link: in some people, HPV isn't harmless ... it can cause cancer.
Does everyone infected with human papillomavirus get cancer?
Thankfully not. Only about 1 in 500 people infected with HPV go on to get cancer. But because we're talking about millions of people with HPV, it leads to thousands of cancers.
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Why is there so much attention on cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is the most common of the cancers that are caused by HPV. The others are all quite rare. But cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged under 35: there are about 3,000 new cases per year in the UK and sadly about 900 women die from it too (often older women who haven't benefited from the vaccine).
It is estimated that HPV causes 70% of cervical cancer, so if we can prevent young women getting HPV in the first place it should reduce their chances of getting cervical cancer.
Why is human papillomavirus important for men?
In men, HPV infection can lead to anal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and penile cancer. Although these cancers aren't as common as cervical cancer, they still affect hundreds of men a year in the UK. Preventing men from getting HPV should dramatically reduce the risk of these cancers.
What is the human papillomavirus vaccine?
A vaccine is a way to prevent you getting infected with something. It makes your immune system stronger so that it can fight off the infection from getting inside you. Scientists have made a vaccine that can stop you getting HPV.
The HPV vaccine is now offered to both boys and girls as part of the NHS vaccination programme.
It is called Gardasil® and you only need two injections of it. It is really effective, stopping 99% of HPV infections.
How many doses are there in the HPV vaccine?
- The first dose is in year 8 at school (school year 9 in Northern Ireland and S1 in Scotland), at age 12-13.
- The second is done between 6 and 24 months later.
- If you miss the dose at age 12, you can get it at any age until 18.
- If you are over 15 when you have the first dose, you will need three doses instead of two. You have one, then a second one a month later, and a third five months after that.
At what age do I get HPV vaccine?
- It can be given at any age between 11 and 18 years.
- But usually the first dose is given at age 12-13 and the second dose 6-12 months later.
Is it too late to have the vaccine if I've already lost my virginity?
Thankfully not. It's still worth getting it done if you are under the age of 18, as long as you were invited through the NHS but missed your vaccine.
I'm a lesbian: do I still need the HPV vaccine?
Yes! The HPV infection has been found in women who have sex with women: they still benefit from the vaccination.
I'm a gay man: do I still need the HPV vaccine?
Absolutely. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are at higher risk of anal cancer, and the number of men being diagnosed with anal cancer is increasing.
I thought the HPV vaccine was three doses, not two?
Scientists realised that two doses were just as good as three. So from September 2014 they started giving people just two injections. That's why you might know older girls who had three doses, but you're only getting two.
What are the side-effects of the HPV vaccine?
- Like any injection, it is a bit painful and will be sore at the injection site for a few days.
- Other than that, there are barely any serious side-effects.
Is it just the UK that gives the HPV vaccine?
No, it's also given routinely to boys and girls in the USA, Australia, Canada and most of Europe. In fact, around 80 million people get vaccinated every year!
Isn't it enough to use condoms?
- Condoms are generally a really good idea, because they prevent you catching sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and HIV.
- Condoms don't prevent you catching HPV though, because you can catch HPV from close sexual contact without necessarily having sexual intercourse.
If I've had the human papillomavirus vaccine can I still get cervical cancer?
- The chances of you getting cervical cancer are much lower, but you can still get it: 30% of cervical cancers aren't related to the types of HPV you'll be vaccinated against.
- You should still have cervical smears, which check for the warning signs of cervical cancer.
If I've had the human papillomavirus vaccine can I still get anal cancer?
As with cervical cancer, HPV vaccination will greatly reduce your risk of getting anal cancer. However, it doesn't offer complete protection, so you should still be aware of the symptoms and get them checked out if you do develop them.
Further reading and references
Cervical cancer - UK mortality statistics; Cancer Research UK
HPV vaccination guide (easy to read leaflet as PDF on HPV vaccination); Public Health England