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HPV and 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, usually 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. A mild change is known as CIN 1 and a severe change is called CIN 2 or 3.

In some cases these more severe changes can develop into cervical cancer. The progression of mild and severe changes to cancer takes many years so these abnormalities are known as pre-cancerous. These changes are diagnosed when women attend for their regular smear tests with CervicalCheck, the national cervical screening programme.

Every year over 6,500 women are diagnosed with CIN and need hospital treatment to prevent cervical cancer caused by the HPV virus. This treatment can lead to infertility problems, miscarriage and premature delivery.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Ireland has had a cervical cancer screening programme since 2008.

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

Cervical screening looks for pre-cancer changes of the cervix before they become cancer. The HPV vaccine prevents these precancer changes to the cervix. The HPV vaccine will greatly reduce the number of women dying from cancer and also the need for hospital treatment of cervical precancers (CIN). HPV vaccine protects against HPV types 16 and 18 which cause 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.

It is still very important for girls to have regular smear tests when they are adults to detect cancers caused by HPV types not in the vaccine. 

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.

Information for women who are concerned about their smear test results can be found here.

Does HPV virus 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 head and neck (tonsil and base of tongue), vaginal, vulvar and anal cancers. These cancers are all increasing in incidence in high income countries like Ireland.

This page was updated on 8 August 2018