More than 50 per cent of sexually active adults are infected with HPV at some point during their lifetime, the virus responsible for almost all cervical cancers. Gynaecologist Mr Fateh Raslan discusses this common disease and the vaccination to prevent it.

HPV responsible for cervical cancer

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, or the human papilloma virus. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted disease.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in February 2007 showed that slightly more than one in four women tested positive for one or more strains of HPV. According to the CDC, at least 50 per cent of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives. There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Most types are harmless or cause genital warts, but around 13 types of HPV can cause cancer.

Difficult to detect HPV

HPV is often hard to detect at first because there are very few symptoms. The most common sign is genital warts. HPV often clears up on its own. You may not even realise that you have it. Most people acquire the disease through sexual contact. Certain parts of the body are more susceptible to this virus, such as the vulva, scrotum, and inner thighs which are not covered by a condom.

Vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer

Worldwide, approximately, seven out of ten cervical cancers are due to HPV types 16 and 18. The HPV vaccine can help protect women against these two specific types.

Generally, it is a good idea for young women to get vaccinated against HPV when they are 12 or 13, before they become sexually active, but the vaccine can be given up to 26. Once an individual becomes sexually active, they increase their risk due to the large percentage of the population that have a strain of this disease but don’t know it because they don’t have any symptoms.

PAP smears important to detection of pre-cancerous cells

The earlier you detect cervical cancer, the better the opportunity to treat it successfully. Around 2,900 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, but deaths from cervical cancer have gone down over the past 25 years thanks to the cervical screening programme. HPV is not treatable; however, there are treatments for the cell changes in the cervix that HPV can cause. If these changes are noticed early enough, they can usually be treated so that cervical cancer doesn’t develop.

Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, it's important to get smear tests as the vaccine doesn't protect against all types of HPV or cervical cancer.

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