Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is very common in Australia, in fact every four out of five people will have HPV at some stage in their life, often without even knowing it!
There are over 100 different types of HPV, some cause warts to form on your hands while about forty other types lead to warts on your genitals, some of these can lead to cervical cancer.
Although common, most women with HPV do not go on to develop cervical cancer, yet HPV is almost always detected in women with cervical cancer.
HPV types are classed as either low-risk or high-risk depending on their ability to change the cells of the cervix and develop into cancers.
For example, low-risk HPV cause minor changes to the cells of the cervix or cause genital warts but very rarely lead to cervical cancer. They usually remain in the body for up to two years, which only allows them a short period of time to change cells.
High-risk HPV such as type 16 and 18 which are linked to about 70% of all cervical cancers, however, take much longer to be cleared from the body and so have more time to change the cells of the cervix, the greater the amount of cell change the greater the chance of developing cervical cancer.
Pap Smears are used to detect changes in the cells of the cervix. This is a test where a specialist scrapes a few cells from the cervix and tests them for any changes or abnormal growth. For more information on pap smears have a look at this page. Pap smears are an excellent way to detect abnormal cells at an early stage so that they can be treated before a cancer develops.
A vaccine against Type 16 and Type 18 HPV which lead to about 70% of cervical cancers and Type 6 and 11 which lead to about 90% of genital warts has been developed. It helps reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer in women by decreasing the number of people infected with these types of HPV. It is known as Gardasil and is available for free to boys and girls aged between 12 and 13 through the National Immunisation Program and to everyone else for a fee. Serious side effects to this vaccine are very rare.
Even if you have had the cervical cancer vaccine you will still need to have regular pap smears as other types of HPV can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix.
Although boys cannot develop cervical cancer they can become infected with HPV and spread it to women during sexual contact, so it is important for guys to be immunized too.