The human papillomavirus (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 that can cause certain types of cancer, including cervical cancer. An HPV vaccine is now available that can protect against certain strains of HPV, including the ones most likely to cause cancer.
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.
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.
Many people are infected with HPV but do not know they are because the do not have any symptoms.
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.
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.
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.
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
Benefits of HPV testing
The HPV test is able to detect the presence of high-risk types of HPV, before any cellular changes have occurred. HPV testing helps to determine those women who need further assessment and those who don’t.
If you have high-risk HPV you will be monitored for any cellular changes in your cervix so they can be attended to early.
HPV testing is a very sensitive test. A negative test result indicates a woman is extremely unlikely to be at risk of developing cervical cancer in the next few years.
What is involved in HPV testing?
The HPV test is usually done at the same time as the cervical smear test using some of the same sample of cells.
The HPV test detects whether genetic material (DNA) from any types of HPV most commonly associated with cervical cancer is present.
What do my HPV test results mean?
Negative test results indicate you:
do not have high-risk HPV
are unlikely to be at risk of developing cervical cancer at this stage.
A positive HPV test means you:
have high-risk HPV
should be monitored to see that the infection goes away
should have follow-up appointments so any cell changes can be found and treated early.
A positive HPV test does not mean you have cancer.
Since the beginning of 2017, the HPV vaccine has been made free for everyone aged 9–26, including boys. It had previously only been free for girls. The HPV immunisation programme has been available in New Zealand since 2008.
Both girls and boys in Year 8 are offered the vaccine through their school, or through their GP if a school-based immunisation programme isn’t available.
Many parents have questions about HPV and the vaccine. Here are five frequently asked questions and the answers:
1. What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name given to a family of common sexually transmitted viruses. HPV is spread through sexual intercourse and sexual skin-to-skin contact. It’s estimated 80% of people have had an HPV infection at some stage in their life. Most HPV infections don’t cause any symptoms and clear up on their own. However, HPV can cause several types of cancer including cervical, throat, mouth, penis and anal cancer, as well as genital warts.
2. Why should my child be vaccinated?
The HPV vaccine provides protection against a range of cancers and genital warts. It’s free for everyone aged 9–26 years of age, males and females. Vaccinating your child helps stop the spread of HPV and cancer diagnoses later in life. In schools, two doses of Gardasil 9 (which replaced the existing Gardasil vaccine from the beginning of 2017) is given to children aged under 14 years, and in three doses to youths aged 15 years and older. Gardasil 9 will be offered in GP practices once stocks of the existing Gardasil run out.
3. Isn’t the age group a bit young?
It’s best if your child is vaccinated before they start being sexually active, that’s because the vaccine works better before your child is exposed to the viruses. It’s hard to know when your child will start engaging in sexual contact, but many children start experimenting sexually at puberty, and some even earlier.
4. Is the vaccine safe?
As with any vaccine, there is a small chance of side effects. The most common side effects are pain, swelling and redness at the injection site. The most serious side effect of any vaccination is anaphylaxis (an allergic reaction), which usually occurs within minutes of receiving a vaccine and is extremely rare. When you receive any vaccination, you will be asked to wait 20 minutes so medical treatment can be given if anaphylaxis occurs.
5. Where can I find more information?
If you have any questions, please talk to your GP or healthcare provider. There are also several websites with information about HPV and the vaccine
The vaccine available for immunisation against HPV was changed in 2017. Gardasil 9, which has replaced Gardasil, now covers HPV types 31,33,45,52 and 58 which collectively are responsible for 20% of genital and oropharyngeal cancers. This increases the rate of cover of oncogenic HPV types to approximately 90%. Read more about Gardasil 9
Free HPV immunisation is now available for everyone (males and females) from the age of 9 to 26 plus for all non-residents less than 18 years of age.
Continuing professional development
HPV immunisation in primary care
(Goodfellow Unit MedTalks, 2019)
Can HPV vaccines eliminate genital warts?
(Goodfellow Unit MedTalks, 2019)
Regional HealthPathways NZ
Access to the following regional pathways is localised for each region and access is limited to health providers. If you do not know the login details, contact your DHB or PHO for more information: