HPV and Cervical Cancer

September 2016

HPV is a virus that causes Cervical Cancer

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, which is a group of more than 200 viruses. Most people will get a HPV infection during their lifetime, from sexual activity. Most of these infections do not need treatment, but they can cause genital warts. In some women, however, HPV infection causes changes in the cervix that can develop into cervical cancer.

HPV infection is most common in people in their late teens and early 20s.  HPV infection rates are now known to be rising rapidly among women and men in high income countries like Ireland.

How is HPV transmitted?

HPV can be transmitted during sexual intercourse or skin to skin  contact with an infected person. Transmission from mother to baby can also occur immediately before or after birth.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a cancer of a woman's cervix, the entrance to the womb.

How common is cervical cancer?

Every year in Ireland about 300 women get cervical cancer and 90 women die from it. Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death due to cancer in women aged 25 to 39 years.  Worldwide cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women with over 500,000 new cases and over 250,000 deaths in 2012.


The HPV vaccine protects women from 7 out of 10 cervical cancers which are caused by HPV. Therefore most cervical cancers can be prevented by the vaccine.

How does HPV infection cause cervical cancer?

HPVs associated with cancer are called oncogenic or 'high risk' types. HPVs that do not cause cancer are termed 'low risk' types.

Two types (16 and 18) cause 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.

HPV can infect the cells on the surface of the cervix and damage them, causing their appearance to change and lead to abnormalities in these cells over a number of years.

These abnormalities are known as Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN). These changes are  classified according to their severity.

Mild lesions are known as CIN 1 and severe lesions are described as CIN 2/3. In some cases these more severe lesions can develop into cervical cancer.

The progression of mild and severe lesions to cancer takes many years so these abnormalities are known as pre-cancerous. These lesions are diagnosed when women attend for their regular smear tests with CervicalCheck, the national cervical screening programme. Every year over 6500 women are diagnosed with these lesions and need hospital treatment for a precancerous form of cervical cancer caused by the HPV virus. 

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Ireland has a cervical cancer screening programme since 2008.

However in countries with well established screening programmes many young women still die from cervical cancer.

Cervical screening can detect pre-cancerous lesions and cervical cancer at an early stage when treatment can be successful.

Every year more than 6500 Irish women have these pre-cancerous lesions and require treatment.

HPV vaccine decreases the number of women with precancerous lesions, and therefore the number of women requiring treatment for these lesions.  HPV vaccine will also decrease the number of women who go on to develop cervical cancer.

HPV vaccine protects against 7 out of 10 cervical cancers, so it is still important for girls to have regular smear tests when they are adults.

 Dr. Philip Davies, Director General of the European Cervical Cancer Association stated in January 2016:

30,000 women die from cervical cancer each year in Europe; many of these deaths are preventable. Through CervicalCheck and the HPV vaccination programme, Ireland has one of the best cervical cancer prevention programmes in Europe and it’s completely free.”


Where can I find out more about the National Cervical Screening Programme?

More information on the cervical screening programme is available at http://www.cervicalcheck.ie/

The HPV vaccine will protect girls from developing cervical cancer when they are adults and is available free of charge from the HSE.

Does HPV cause other cancers?

Yes. Recent research has shown that the HPV virus is responsible for 4 other cancers that can affect women (and men) including  oropharyngeal (tonsil and base of tongue),  vaginal and vulvar cancers, and anal cancers.  These cancers are all increasing in incidence in high income countries like Ireland.


Copies of the information materials are available to download for parents of girls in 1st year of second level schools or equivalent in special schools.

This page was updated on 12/10/2016