The 4th March is International HPV Awareness Day (IHAD). As such, now is the perfect opportunity for people to better understand this infection and the serious consequences that it can have on human health.
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV in the world. 14 of these have been identified as serious, potentially cancer-causing viruses.1 But how is this virus spread and what are the main risks?
How HPV is spread
HPV is primarily spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. It can also spread through close skin-to-skin contact between individuals. As there are often no symptoms, the virus is easy to transmit. It’s estimated that most people will have HPV at one point in their lives. The majority of the time this is harmless, as our immune systems can destroy the virus within two years. However, it is when the body cannot eliminate the virus that people are at higher risk of cancer.
HPV and various cancers
HPV has been linked to a number of different types of cancer. These include cervical, throat, mouth, vaginal, penile and vulval cancers.2 It has been especially indicated as the main risk factor for cervical, throat and mouth cancers and it is estimated that just two strains of the virus are responsible for up to 70% of cervical cancer cases.3 Cervical cancer has become the fourth most common cancer among women across the globe and affects over 500,000 women a year.4
Research has also suggested that HPV is directly linked to a quarter of mouth cancer cases and a third of throat cancer cases – showing just how much of an impact this virus can have.5
HPV in recent times
While a vaccination programme for young women has existed for some time, it wasn’t until comparatively recently (2019) that males were able to access the vaccine in a similar manner. Now, all children aged 12 to 13 years are offered the HPV vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme. The first dose usually administered when they are in Year 8 of school. The second dose of the vaccine is then given 6-24 months afterwards.6
Today, the HPV vaccine is available for free for individuals up to 25 years of age. Also, those outside of this age bracket can pay to receive the vaccine, meaning that people have the protection available should they need it.
Better understanding, better protection
The main goal of International HPV Awareness Day is to encourage people to get informed about HPV and take action to manage the risk of HPV-related cancer.
1 World Health Organization. Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer. Link: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer [Last accessed January 22].
2 Cancer Research UK. Risks and Causes. Link: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cervical-cancer/risks-causes [Last accessed January 22].
3 Cancer Research UK. Risks and Causes. Link: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cervical-cancer/risks-causes [Last accessed January 22].
4 World Health Organization. Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer. Link: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer [Last accessed January 22].
5 NHS. Can Oral Sex Give You Cancer? Link: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/can-oral-sex-give-you-cancer/ [Last accessed January 22].
6 NHS. HPV Vaccine Overview. Link: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/hpv-human-papillomavirus-vaccine/ [Last accessed January 22].