Or Human Papillomavirus?
Some of you may have heard of it due to the HPV vaccine and the roll out in secondary schools (we’re really showing our age now). This may surprise you, but HPV is actually an STI (yep you read that right, a sexually transmitted infection). In fact, it's the most common STI and here's everything you should know about it.
HPV is a huge family of viruses with over 100 strains. Commonly these strains are broken into 2 categories, low-risk strains and high-risk strains.
Low risk strains:
- HPV2 and 10 cause common warts on hands/feet
- HPV6 and 11 are the strains that cause genital warts
High Risk strains:
- These are the strains we need to watch out for as they've the potential to develop into cancer.
- High-risk strains include; HPV: 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 45, 51, 52 and 56.
- HPV16 and 18 are known for causing cervical cancer.
- The most common type of cancer is cervical cancer, however it can also cause penial cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer and head and neck cancer.
80% of people will contract the HPV virus at some point in their life. Luckily, our immune system is made of strong stuff and often does the job of clearing viral infections for us. However, sometimes our immune system can’t clear the infection for us and it can lie dormant for months or even years. When we’re infected with a high-risk strain of HPV and it goes untreated, that's when it's more likely to develop into cancer.
So, how is HPV contracted?
Well, as we mentioned, it's an STI so it's spread through skin to skin contact during any kind of sexual activity (penetrative or not). This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex or any form of genital contact.
What you can do to prevent getting HPV?
While they're amazing at what they do, unfortunately, condoms alone won’t cut it as they don't cover the entire genital area. The most effective way to protect against HPV is getting the HPV vaccine. This vaccine protects you against the types of HPV that cause 9 out of 10 cervical cancers. These vaccines are cutting cervical cancer rates in Ireland by almost 90% (AMAZING 🤯).
Another way to prevent getting HPV is reducing your number of sexual partners. Yeah.. It may sound obvious but as HPV is an STI, the less sexual partners we have, the less likely we are to contract the virus.
So, what is the HPV vaccine and where can I get it?
The lovely island of Ireland actually has a HPV vaccine programme that can be accessed by anyone registered with the HSE. This is where girls and boys attending 1st year of secondary school are given the vaccine for free - and god knows we love a freebie ;)
The vaccine is most effective when administered before any hanky-panky (i.e. sexual contact) has occurred which is why it’s typically given to those aged 12-13 years. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get the vaccine if you've already had sex, it just means it won’t be as effective.
Now we know not everyone was eligible to receive the vaccine in secondary school but the good news is, you can still receive the vaccine if you missed the opportunity to be included in the vaccine programme. The only downside is that it's pretty expensive - typically ranging from between €600-800. Our advice is to have a chat with your GP and discuss whether it makes sense for you to receive the vaccine.
Where else in the world is the HPV Vaccine available?
Ireland isn't the only country to provide access to the HPV vaccine. Over 80 million people worldwide have received this jab.
More than a decade ago, the NHS in England began providing the vaccine to girls aged 12-13 and recently a study published in medical journal the Lancet found that the HPV vaccine cut cervical cancer rates by 87 percent in women who received the vaccine when aged 12-13. Then in 2019, the NHS also began offering HPV vaccines to children of all genders ages 11 to 13 as well as adults who wanted it.
As well as all this, towards the end of 2020, the World Health Organisation announced their "vision of a world where cervical cancer is eliminated as a public health problem". The program set a goal for countries around the world to vaccinate 90 percent of girls by 2030 and to have 70 percent of women screened for cervical cancer by age 35.
While HPV still holds the spot as the most common STI and cervical cancer remains a threat, there has been so much positive work done to eliminate this cancer from our lives. As with anything in the medical field, there's a lot more to be done about it, but we feel good about where this movement is going - that's for sure!
As always, if you have questions about HPV or the HPV vaccine, please reach out to your healthcare professional.