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HPV and cervical cancer

What is HPV? 

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are over 100 types of HPV, which affect different parts of the body. In rare cases, certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer.

Around 80% of people will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives[1],[2], but the vast majority will not develop cervical cancer.

For most women, HPV will be cleared on its own by the body’s immune system within one or two years, with no harmful effects.

Key facts about HPV

Key facts about HPV

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common infection that usually clears naturally within 1–to2 years
  • In rare cases, an HPV infection that doesn’t clear up can lead to cervical cancer
  • HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers[1]
  • Most women who have HPV will not develop cervical cancer
  • The Cervical Screening Test prevents cervical cancer by finding HPV
  • Women who have had the HPV vaccination still need to have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years
  • You can get HPV even if you’ve only had sex once or have been with just one partner

[1] Department of Health, 2020. Information for healthcare providers about their role in the National Cervical Screening Program. Available at http://www.cancerscreening.gov.au/internet/screening/publishing.nsf/Content/healthcare-providers

How does HPV cause cervical cancer?

In rare cases, persistent infection with HPV (an infection that doesn’t clear up) can lead to cervical cancer.

(Click to enlarge)

Progression of HPV to cervical cancer

HPV infection

When HPV infects the cells lining the surface of the cervix, it can disrupt the regular functions of the cells, and cause them to grow in an uncontrolled way. Although most HPV infections clear up naturally, some types (especially types 16 and 18) are less likely to clear up on their own. This persistent infection can cause the cells in the cervix to change, which can eventually develop into cervical cancer.

Having the HPV vaccine prior to any sexual activity protects against the main types of HPV that cause cervical cancers. Women who have had the vaccine still need to screen as the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cancer.

HPV types 16 and 18 cause over 70% of cervical cancers in Australia[3].

Low-grade abnormalities

Sometimes HPV infections can cause minor changes or abnormalities in the cells. For many women, their body will clear the HPV infection but other times the infection may progress.

High-grade abnormalities

If left undetected, HPV infection can progress and cause cells to mutate and divide. This is known as high-grade abnormalities or pre-cancer.

Cervical cancer

When left untreated, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells can become cancer. It usually takes about 10-15 years for persistent HPV infection to progress to cancer. 

How long does it take for cervical cancer to develop?

It usually takes between 10 and 15 years for a persistent HPV infection to cause cervical cancer.

That’s why having a Cervical Screening Test (the Pap test replacement*) every five years can prevent cervical cancer. If HPV is found, women can either be monitored to ensure the infection clears on its own, or treated if necessary.

How is HPV transmitted?

HPV is passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact between people during sex (including sex between two females). It is not transmitted through blood or other bodily fluids.

This means that all women aged 25-74 who have ever been sexually active need to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

What are the symptoms of HPV infection?

Some types of HPV cause genital warts, but most HPV infections have no symptoms or visible signs of infection. Most people with an HPV infection are not aware they have the virus.

Is there a vaccine for HPV?

Yes, there is a vaccine for some types of HPV. While the HPV vaccine protects against certain high risk types of HPV, including 16 and 18, it does not protect against all types of HPV. Women who have had the HPV vaccine still need to have a Cervical Screening Test every five years.

As the HPV vaccine works best before people become sexually active, it is available for girls and boys aged 12-13 through a free school-based program.

The HPV vaccine does not treat an HPV infection that is already in the body.

How is HPV treated?

There is no treatment for HPV, as most people’s immune systems will clear the virus naturally.

However, changes to the cells of your cervix caused by an ongoing HPV infection can be treated. If treatment is needed, your doctor will recommend the most suitable treatment for you.

Should I tell my partner that I have HPV?

If you have an HPV infection, it is likely that your partner has it too. If you or your partner are concerned about HPV, talk to your doctor or go to a sexual health centre for advice.

Remember, HPV is very common, and for most people the infection will clear up naturally within one or two years with no harmful effects.

What about cervical cancers that aren’t caused by HPV?

Cervical cancers that aren’t caused by HPV – called neuroendocrine cancers – are very rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cervical cancers[4].

There is no effective screening test for neuroendocrine cervical cancers. Neither the Pap test nor the Cervical Screening Test is able to detect these rare cervical cancers.

Having a Cervical Screening Test every five years is still the best way to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

[1] Koutsky L. Epidemiology of genital human papillomavirus infection. Am J Med 1997;102(5A):3—8

[2] Syrjanen K, Hakama M, Saarikoski S, Vayrynen M, Yliskoski M, Syrjanen S, et al. Prevalence, incidence, and estimated life-time risk of cervical human papillomavirus infections in a nonselected Finnish female population. Sex Transm Dis 1990;17(1):15—9

[3] Brotherton, Julia ML. How Much Cervical Cancer in Australia is Vaccine Preventable? A Meta-Analysis. Vaccine. 10 January 2008, Vol. 26, 2, pp. 250-256

*In December 2017, the cervical screening test replaced the Pap test as the method of screening women to prevent cervical cancer in Australia.