Patients, Visitors & The Public

HPV vaccine

What is human papilloma virus (HPV)?

HPV is a virus. There are more than 100 different types of the HPV virus. Infection by high risk HPV is the cause of 99 per cent of all cases of cervical cancer - the second most common cancer affecting women worldwide.

I've heard about the HPV vaccination. What is it?

Cervarix is a vaccine that has been developed to protect against the high risk HPV types 16 and 18. It provides very effective protection against these two high risk types of HPV and therefore reduces the chance of developing cervical cancer.

Who can get the vaccine?

The vaccine is available to all girls aged 12-13 years through a school programme. Vaccination is not routinely recommended for those aged 19 or over, but some women may benefit from vaccination. Ask your doctor or a sexual health expert for advice.

How will the vaccine be given?

Three doses of vaccine need to be given before sexual activity starts and the risk of HPV infection increases. The second and third dose will be given one month after and then six months after the initial dose. The vaccine is given in the upper arm or thigh.

Will it hurt?

Skin reaction at the injection site is common: you might experience mild to moderate pain, and stinging and redness which is limited to a small area. These effects usually do not last long.

How long will I be protected for?

It is not yet known how long the vaccine will protect you for. If you became infected with HPV naturally, your body would develop protection from further infections for approximately the next 10 years. It is likely that the vaccine will provide protection for longer than this.

Do I still need to have cervical screening tests?

Yes. Women who have been vaccinated are not protected against all HPV types and must still have regular cervical screening tests, as recommended by the NHS screening programme.

Will the vaccine protect me from genital warts?

No. It will only protect against infection from high risk HPV 16 and 18.

Do all HPVs cause cervical cancer?

No. Some HPVs cause non-cancerous skin warts that commonly appear on the hands and feet.

About 40 HPVs affect the genital area and these are divided into those which are low risk for cervical cancer and those which are high risk for cervical cancer.

Low risk types, such as HPV 6 and 11, cause non-cancerous genital warts. High risk types - the types most like to cause cervical cancer - include HPV 16 and 18.

How do you get infected with genital HPV?

You can get infected with genital HPV through skin-to-skin contact which means you can get it through sexual activity. Condoms help protect against HPV infection but because condoms don't cover all of the genital area you won't be completely protected.

How does genital HPV cause the development of cancer?

The majority of genital HPV infections never cause any symptoms and in most cases the immune system usually clears the infection in a few months. However, when the infection becomes persistent - as it does in a small number of women - it can lead to pre-cancerous cell changes in the cervix.

The progression from a normal cervix to pre-cancerous cell changes takes many years in most women and not all women with cell changes go on to develop cervical cancer. Regular cervical screening tests will pick up cell changes that could potentially progress to cancer.

If I've got genital warts, am I likely to develop cervical cancer?

No, this is unlikely. There is often a misunderstanding about the difference between high risk HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, and low risk HPV, which causes genital warts.

The type of HPV that causes genital warts is low risk and unlikely to cause cancer.