Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Commonly known as HPV

Key points about HPV

  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) has more than 150 different strains, some cause harmless warts but others can cause cancer, especially HPV strains that are spread during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
  • Many people will contract HPV through skin to skin contact but don't know it because they don't have any symptoms. Even without symptoms it can be spread to other people.
  • The HPV vaccine can protect against several types of HPV that have been linked to cancer. The best time to get the HPV vaccine is before you become sexually active. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone 9 to 26 years of age. 
  • Any person with a cervix aged 25 to 69 years should have regular cervical screening to pick up HPV infection, and identify any changes that may become cancer. 
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Video: Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

This video provides information about the types of HPV and the importance of HPV vaccination. Click on the image below to go to the IMAC site to watch the video. It may take a few moments to load.

(external link) 
(The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ, 2017)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a family of viruses with more than 150 different strains (types) that cause different types of infections of the skin. Some strains of HPV cause harmless warts, but some can cause cancer.

  • The HPV strains that cause warts on your hands or legs are harmless. They are different to the strains that cause genital warts and the ones that can lead to cancer.
  • More than 40 HPV types infect the anus and genital area and throat (pharynx and larynx) and the majority are sexually transmitted. Generally, people have no symptoms with infection of most types of HPV, except for genital warts. 
  • If left undetected, HPV can lead to cancer, including cervical cancer, anal cancer and cancers affecting the mouth, throat, vulva, vagina and penis.
  • It can take 20 years or longer from infection to the development of cancer.
  • Over 95% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV infection. So it's important for all people with a cervix to have regular cervical screening, whether they have been vaccinated or not.

HPV is very contagious and can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, as well as through intimate sexual contact with someone who has HPV. Pregnant people can spread it to their newborn baby during the birth process.

  • Almost everyone will have HPV on their skin at some point in their life, regardless of sexual practice or sexual preference.
  • Genital HPV infection is usually passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner.
  • The virus can be transmitted by penetrative as well as non-penetrative sexual contact (genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, oral-anal).
  • HPV is not transmitted through blood or body fluids, eg, semen or saliva.
  • Using condoms is recommended, but can't completely prevent HPV from spreading. 
  • Because HPV is so common, having HPV is considered a natural consequence of being sexually active.
  • It's possible for a person to infect somebody else without even knowing they have the virus.

Note: For most people with HPV infection with no symptoms, it clears by itself within 2 years (especially in people under 30 years of age). Sometimes HPV can cause a persistent infection so screening for the virus helps people know if additional diagnostic testing or treatment may be required. Read more about cervical screening.

An HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains, including the ones most likely to cause cancer. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone 9 to 26 years of age. It's recommended to be given to tamariki at the age of 11 to 12 years – ideally before they become sexually active. This is the most effective way of preventing HPV. Read more about the HPV vaccine.

Testing for the presence of HPV is not available as part of a sexual health or a routine check-up. This is because the available HPV tests don't check for ALL the HPV types and often the virus is present at levels that are not detectable by testing.

But, for cervical cancer prevention, there is an HPV test that can detect the presence of high-risk types of HPV. Over 95% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, so it's important to be screened. This is called HPV primary screening. 

Wāhine/women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 69 who have had intimate skin-to-skin contact, or any sexual activity, no matter their sexual orientation are encouraged to have this test.

  • It involves a vaginal swab that can be done by a healthcare provider or as a self-swab in private at your healthcare provider's clinic/surgery or in an approved community setting.
  • They will send the swab off for you to be tested for HPV.
  • HPV primary screening is a very sensitive test. If no HPV is detected it means you are extremely unlikely to be at risk of developing cervical cancer in the next few years.
  • HPV primary screening has replaced the cervical sample test (known as cervical smear test) for cervical screening. If you would prefer to have a cervical sample test done (previously known as a smear test) by a health professional that is still an option. Read more about HPV screening and what the results mean on the cervical screening page.

Key facts about HPV(external link) HPV Project, NZ
HPV vaccination(external link) HPV Project, NZ
How will HPV affect my relationship/s?(external link) HPV Project,NZ
Frequently asked questions about HPV and genital warts(external link) HPV Project, NZ
HPV(external link) Healthy Sex, NZ
HPV testing(external link) National Screening Unit, NZ
FAQ about HPV and HPV testing(external link) National Screening Unit, NZ

Resources

HPV vaccine for cervical cancer(external link) Ministry of Health, NZ, 2016 available in the following languages: English(external link), te reo Māori(external link), Cook Islands Māori(external link), Hindi(external link), Samoan(external link), Tongan(external link), Simplified Chinese(external link), Traditional Chinese(external link)
HPV and men [PDF, 206 KB] The New Zealand HPV Project, 2019
HPV and throat cancer [PDF, 229 KB] The New Zealand HPV Project, 2017
Preventing HPV cancers by vaccination: What everyone should know(external link) The New Zealand HPV Project, 2023
Some questions and answers about HPV and genital warts  [PDF, 276 KB]The New Zealand HPV Project, 2019
HPV vaccine - what you need to know. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), US, 2013 available in the following languages: English(external link)Arabic(external link), Burmese(external link), Farsi(external link), Korean(external link), Thai(external link), Vietnamese(external link), more languages (5+)(external link)
Cervical screening information(external link) in English, te reo Māori and for Pasifika audiences HealthEd, NZ, 2023

References

  1. HPV primary screening: an overview of the programme(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2023
  2. Human papillomavirus (HPV)(external link) IMAC, NZ

HPV primary screening: an overview of the programme(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2023
HPV vaccination – getting the programme back on track(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2019
Key information summary – genital human papillomavirus(external link) HPV Project, NZ, 2013
Medical guidelines for the management of HPV in NZ(external link) HPV Project, NZ, 2013
Sexually transmitted infections – summary of guidelines(external link) HPV Project, NZ, 2013
Genital wart management – a partnership between physician and patient(external link) ObGyn.net, 2011
Innes CR, et al. Impact of human papillomavirus vaccination on rates of abnormal cervical cytology and histology in young NZ women(external link) NZ Med J. 2020;133(1508):72-84.
Cervical screening for healthcare providers Healthify He Puna Waiora, NZ

Continuing professional development

Video: Goodfellow Unit MedTalk: HPV immunisation in primary care

This video may take a few moments to load.

(Goodfellow Unit MedTalks, NZ, 2019)

Video: Goodfellow Unit MedTalk: Can HPV vaccines eliminate genital warts

This video may take a few moments to load.


(Goodfellow Unit MedTalks, NZ, 2019)

Brochures

Immunise against HPV

Immunise against HPV
Ministry of Health, NZ, 2016
English, te reo Māori, Cook Islands Māori, Hindi, Samoan, Tongan, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese

Preventing HPV cancers by vaccination
The New Zealand HPV Project, 2023

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Phoebe Hunt, Medical Officer, Northland

Last reviewed: