HPV stands for ‘human papillomavirus, which is a group of more than 100 viruses.
Around 40 types of HPV can infect the genital tract of both men and women, and over 75% of people in Ireland don’t understand what HPV is.
The HPV virus is very common, around 80% of people will be infected with the virus at some stage in their lives. Research shows that almost every sexually active adult will have at one point been in contact with HPV. The majority of HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and it has been shown that 90% of all cervical cancers can be traced back to HPV.
According to the HSE, 300 Irish women get cervical cancer every year. 90 of whom will die form the illness. In women aged 25 to 39 years, cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death due to cancer.
HPV is spread by close ‘skin to skin’ contact during any kind of sexual activity. This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex or genital contact with a person that has HPV. Condoms will reduce, but not eliminate the risk of contracting HPV as the virus can affect areas not covered by a condom.
Cervix, Vaginal Area, Anus, Throat, Vulva (the area surrounding the opening of the vagina) and Mouth/Head/Neck
Anus, Throat, Penis, Mouth/Head/Neck
HPV infection can also cause genital warts in both girls and boys.
In Ireland, students in their 1st year of secondary school are offered the HPV vaccine as part of the school vaccination programme, to protect them from infectious diseases.
All the vaccines given in the schools’ immunisation programme are free.
The HPV vaccine has been offered to girls in their first year of secondary school since 2010. This is because the most common cancer caused by the HPV virus is cervical cancer, which only affects women.
Since September 2019, boys have also been offered the HPV vaccine. This is because HPV can cause cancers and genital warts in boys too.
The more young people vaccinated – both boys and girls – the better we can control the spread of the infection.
One of the first countries to introduce the vaccine, Australia (who introduced it in 2007), has seen a decrease of more than 50% in rates of pre-cancer of the cervix in the last 10 years.
Mouth Head and Neck Cancer is a diverse group of squamous cell cancers that affect the oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx.
Overall, it is the sixth most common cancer worldwide with an annual estimated incidence of 550,000 cases with over 700 of those in Ireland and around 300,000 deaths.
Although usually associated with smoking and alcohol, a significant subset of oropharyngeal cancers is driven by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, and these cancers account, at least in part, for the significant increase in recent years.
There is a lack of awareness, or simply a spread of misinformation about what HPV actually is, and how it can be prevented.
53% of parents don’t worry about their sons contracting HPV, while 62% of people think that HPV is a rare condition. Thankfully, vaccines are now available which gives more than 99% protection against infection from high risk HPV types.
Reducing the risk is very important and individuals can do so by:
A screening test looks to see if you might be at greater risk of developing cancer in the future.
Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you should have your cervical screening test (smear test) every time it’s due. This is because the HPV vaccine doesn’t give complete protection against cervical cancer.
There is no HPV screening currently available for males. The HPV vaccine is your best chance at protecting yourself against genital warts and HPV-related cancers.
One of Ireland’s leading patient advocates and one of the most vocal ‘HPV vaccine’ campaigners, Laura Brennan, died in hospital on March 20th 2019. During her battle with cancer, the Co.Clare woman inspired a 19% increase in the uptake of the vaccine. The HPV uptake rate nationally increased from 51% to 80%, while in Laura’s home county, Clare, the increase has been 90%.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the HPV vaccine is extremely safe. Since it was rolled out, more than 300,000 Irish girls have safely received the vaccine and more than 100 million doses of the vaccine have been administered around the world. If you have questions about the HPV vaccine, talk to a trusted health professional like your GP or dentist.