Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Commonly known as HPV

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a family of more than 100 different strains of viruses. Some strains of HPV cause harmless warts, but some can cause cancer. An HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains, including the ones most likely to cause cancer.

Key points

  1. Many people are infected with HPV but don't know they are because they don't have any symptoms.
  2. HPV infection, even if you don't have any symptoms, can lead to cancer if not treated. 
  3. Having regular cervical smears helps to pick up changes caused by unknown HPV infection.
  4. An HPV vaccine is now available and can protect you against several types of HPV, including some that have been linked to cancer.
  5. In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone aged 9–26 years. It is recommended to be given to children aged 11–12 years.

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a family of more than 100 different strains of viruses. Some strains of HPV cause harmless warts, but some can cause cancer. 

The HPV strains that cause warts on your hands or legs are harmless. They are 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 anyone.

How is HPV spread?

Genital HPV infection is usually passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner. Correct usage of latex condoms greatly reduces the risk of catching or spreading HPV but doesn't take it away completely.

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

HPV vaccine

An HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains, including the ones most likely to cause cancer. In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone aged 9 to 26 years. It is recommended to be given to children aged 11–12 years.

  • For children aged 9–14 years, the HPV vaccine is given as 2 doses, at least 5 months apart. This age group develops a stronger immune response than those vaccinated when they are older.
  • Children aged 15 years and older need 3 doses of the vaccine, spaced over 6 months.

The HPV vaccine currently recommended in New Zealand protects against the 4 most common strains of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. These are responsible for most of the cases of cancer and almost all of the cases of genital warts. The vaccine also protects against 5 other strains that can cause cancer.

The vaccine works by causing your 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 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
HPV vaccine – myth vs fact HPV Project, NZ
Frequently asked questions about HPV and genital warts HPV Project, NZ
Cervical smears and HPV HPV Project, NZ
HPV Healthy Sex, NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Jeremy Tuohy is an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist with a special interest in Maternal and Fetal Medicine. Jeremy has been a lecturer at the University of Otago, Clinical leader of Ultrasound and Maternal and Fetal Medicine at Capital and Coast DHB, and has practiced as a private obstetrician. He is currently completing his PhD in Obstetric Medicine at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.
Angela is a pharmacist in the Quality Use of Medicines Team at Waitematā District Health Board. She has experience in hospital pharmacy in New Zealand and in the UK, and was previously a medical writer for Elsevier in The Netherlands. Angela is interested in promoting the safe use of medicines, particularly high-risk medicines.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Jeremy Tuohy, Obstetrician & Researcher, University of Auckland; Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 08 Oct 2020