Almost all sexually active people will contract one or more strains of HPV, but what does that really mean and what causes HPV?


What Causes HPV?

HPV can cause cervical cancer, but what causes HPV? HPV stands for human papillomavirus and is the most common viral STI in the world, according to The American Centre for Disease Control (CDC)

Altogether there are over 100 different types of HPV and not all of them cause health problems. Some kinds of HPV may cause problems like genital warts. Some kinds of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, or anus.

HPV lives in the body’s epithelial cells. These are flat and thin cells found on the skin’s surface and also on the surface of the vagina, anus, vulva, cervix, penis head, mouth and throat.

Most commonly what causes HPV to spread is skin to skin contact during sex. Many who are infected display no symptoms of HPV and can, therefore, be completely unaware when transferring it on to a sexual partner.

The silver lining, however, is that in many cases the virus goes away on its own, the CDC writes.

The bad news is that HPV causes almost 100% of cervical cancer. Types 16 and 18 are considered responsible for most of these cases.

Why Is There Opposition To The HPV Vacine?

The Human Papillomavirus vaccine is a topic of debate. An increase in media anecdotes have caused U.S. vaccination rates to stagnate far below optimum levels for protection. As of 2014, only 40% of girls ages 13 to 17 had completed the three-vaccine course of HPV immunization. 5,000 fewer Irish schoolgirls opted to receive the vaccine in the last academic year compared to the 2014/2015 cycle.

The World Health Organization Global Advisory Committee for Vaccine Safety (GACVS) reviewed the evidence on the safety of Gardasil vaccine (aka. HPV vaccine). WHO concluded in December 2015 that Gardasil continues to have an excellent safety profile and has no link to any serious illnesses.

A cohort study of approximately 1 million girls found no evidence supporting associations between exposure to the human papillomavirus vaccine and autoimmune, neurological, and venous thromboembolic adverse affects.

What The Experts Say:

Speaking about chronic fatigue, the NHS state:

“There have been reports in the press alleging that girls have developed chronic fatigue syndrome after HPV vaccination. There are no more cases of CFS than would be expected in teenage girls naturally and there is no evidence to link CFS to the HPV vaccine.”

Planned Parenthood on the safety of the HPV vaccine:

“As with any vaccine, there is a very small risk of an allergic reaction. If you have a fast heartbeat, high fever, hives, rash, or weakness, call your health care provider right away. Be reassured that severe reactions like this are extremely rare, in the order of around one in a million.

The most common side effects are bruising, itching, redness, swelling, or tenderness around the area where the shot is given. Women may also experience dizziness, fainting, mild fever, nausea, and vomiting. But these symptoms do not last long and usually pass on their own.”

Professor Margaret Stanley (OBE, Cambridge University) is acknowledged in her field as a leading research scientist in HPV and cervical cancer:

The HPV vaccine is safe and will save lives – the evidence shows this. More than 200 million doses have been delivered to more than 75 million people worldwide. Large studies looking at 3-4 million women, vaccinated and un-vaccinated found no evidence whatsoever that HPV vaccination causes any immune or nervous system disorders. As someone who has worked throughout her professional life to prevent the scourge of cervical cancer in women, I am confident that this vaccine against HPV, the cause of this cancer, can prevent cervical cancers, saving lives and suffering in millions of women around the world.

There is a concern is that without the fear of genital warts or cervical cancer young people will become more promiscuous, and that the HPV vaccine therefore in effect encourages behaviour that some deem immoral. However it is documented that teenagers who receive the HPV vaccine tend to be far more aware of sexual health than their un-vaccinated peers, and research shows quite clearly that sexual activity is not elevated in the vaccinated group.

HPV causes almost 100% of cervical cancer which has claimed the lives of 270,000 women in 2012 alone.

What Causes HPV?: The Facts

As stated above, most commonly what causes HPV is sexual contact. But unlike many other sexually transmitted infections wearing a condom does not guarantee 100% safety in regards to HPV.

While the correct use of condoms provides effective protection against many sexually transmitted infections, HPV can exist on skin which is not covered by the condom. Because of this, it is possible to become infected despite having used a condom correctly with every sexual partner.

Limiting the number of sexual partners is also not a guarantee that you will stay clear of HPV.

Studies have also found that you can contract HPV without having sex at all. Skin- to skin contact is the leading cause of HPV contraction.

Sharing a razor or a sex toy with someone infected with HPV could also transfer the virus to you.

For these reasons, it is important to get screened regularly for HPV. Screening tests can determine if you have “high risk” types of the virus so that problems can be treated early before they ever turn into cancer.

Causes Of HPV and Cancer

Every year cervical cancer takes the lives of thousands of women worldwide. In the UK alone 726 women lost their life to cervical cancer in 2014. A recent study found that the reason this number isn’t higher is regular cancer screenings and HPV testing among the female population.

Unfortunately, this is not the only bad news in relation to HPV. Researchers have also linked HPV to cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). It is estimated that 95% of anal cancers are linked to HPV. Most of these cancers do not usually present any symptoms until the cancer is advanced and are therefore hard to treat.

As of today, there is no cure for HPV, which makes regular testing or the HPV vaccine the number one defences against these cancers.

Other types of HPV can cause genital warts. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Warts can appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected partner even if the infected partner has no signs of genital warts. It is estimated that 90% of genital warts are caused by two strains of the virus, type 6 and type 11.

Medical professionals have previously stated that genital warts do not seem to be linked to cancer or “high-risk” types of HPV.

“Ordinary genital warts are caused by HPV types that are virtually never found in cancer. These are the “low-risk” types, 6, 11, 42, 43, and 44. When not causing genital warts they may cause a transient abnormality in Pap test results, or most often produce no symptoms at all,” Dr Doug Lowy with the National Cancer Institute, told the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA).

Read What Is Cervical Cancer? Everything You Need To Know.

Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley