Human papilloma virus

Commonly known as HPV

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a family of more than 100 different strains of viruses. Some strains of HPV cause harmless warts on your hands, legs or feet; others cause genital warts. Of greatest concern are the high-risk strains which can cause certain types of cancer, including cervical cancer. An HPV vaccine is now available which can protect against certain strains of HPV, including the ones most likely to cause cancer.

Key points

  1. There are more than 100 strains of HPV. The strains that cause warts on your hands or legs are harmless and different to the strains that cause genital warts and the ones that can lead to cancer.
  2. About 30 types of HPV put you at risk for cancer and can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus in women, or cancers of the anus and penis in men and throat cancers for both men and women.
  3. Many people are infected with HPV but do not know they are because the do not have any symptoms. 
  4. This is why women should have regular cervical smear or Pap smears to pick up changes in the cervix (caused by unknown HPV infection) that might lead to cancer if not treated.
  5. An HPV vaccine is now available and can protect you against several types of HPV, including some that have been linked to cancer.

Regular smear tests

Genital HPV infection is usually passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner. Correct usage of latex condoms greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of catching or spreading HPV.

Most people with HPV virus infection do not know they have it. This is why women should have regular cervical smear or Pap smears to pick up changes in the cervix (caused by unknown HPV infection) that might lead to cancer if not treated.

HPV vaccine

In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone age 9 to 26 years (males and females). It is recommended to be given to children aged 11 to 12 years.

  • For children aged 9 to 14 years, the HPV vaccine is given as 2 doses, 6 months apart. This age group develops a stronger immune response than those vaccinated when they are older.
  • Children aged 15 years and older will need 3 doses of the vaccine, spaced over 6 months.

The HPV vaccine protects against certain strains of HPV, including types 6, 11, 16 and 18.

  • Around 90% of all cases of genital warts are caused HPV type 6 and type 11.
  • More than 70% of cases of cervical cancer are linked to types 16 and 18.

The vaccine works by causing the body’s immune system to produce its own protection (antibodies) against the HPV types most likely to cause cancer or genital warts. If an immunised person comes into contact with HPV, the antibodies in their blood will fight the virus and protect them against being infected. It usually takes several weeks after vaccination to develop protection against HPV. Read more about the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is only able to prevent HPV infection; it does not treat the infection. For best protection girls need to be vaccinated before they are likely to be exposed to HPV, which means before they start having any sexual contact.

Learn more

Key facts about HPV HPV Project (NZ) 
HPV vaccination HPV Project (NZ), 2014
HPV Vaccine – myth vs fact  HPV Project (NZ), 2014
Frequently asked questions about HPV and genital warts HPV Project (NZ), 2013
Cervical smears and HPV HPV Project (NZ), 2013

Credits: Updated by Claire Hurst, New Zealand Sexual Health Service, September 2014. Reviewed By: Dr Jeremy Tuohy, Obstetrician & Researcher, University of Auckland. Last reviewed: 30 Mar 2017