Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Commonly known as HPV

Key points about HPV

  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) has more than 100 different strains, some cause harmless warts but others can cause cancer.
  • Many people are infected with HPV but don't know they are because they don't have any symptoms.
  • Having regular cervical smears helps to pick up changes caused by unknown HPV infection.
  • An HPV vaccine can protect you against several types of HPV, including some that have been linked to cancer.
  • In Aotearoa New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone aged 9–26 years. 
Smiling Māori girl outdoors

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(The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ, 2017)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a family of more than 100 different strains of viruses. 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.

About 30 types of HPV put you at risk for cancer and can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus in women, or cancers of the anus and penis in men, and throat cancers for anyone.

Genital HPV infection is usually passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner. Correct usage of latex condoms greatly reduces the risk of catching or spreading HPV but doesn't take it away completely.

Most people with HPV virus infection don't know they have it. This is why women should have regular cervical (Pap) smears to pick up changes in your cervix (caused by unknown HPV infection) that might lead to cancer if not treated.

The HPV test is able to detect the presence of high-risk types of HPV, before any cellular changes have occurred.

The HPV test is usually done at the same time as the cervical smear test using some of the same sample of cells. The HPV test detects whether genetic material (DNA) from any types of HPV most commonly associated with cervical cancer is present.

What are the benefits of HPV testing?

HPV testing helps to determine those women who need further assessment and those who don’t. If you have high-risk HPV you will be monitored for any cellular changes in your cervix so they can be attended to early.

HPV testing is a very sensitive test. A negative test result indicates you are extremely unlikely to be at risk of developing cervical cancer in the next few years.

What do my HPV test results mean?

Negative test results indicate you:

  • don't have high-risk HPV
  • are unlikely to be at risk of developing cervical cancer at this stage.

A positive HPV test means you:

  • have high-risk HPV
  • should be monitored to see that the infection goes away
  • should have follow-up appointments so any cell changes can be found and treated early.

A positive HPV test does not mean you have cancer.

There is currently no approved HPV test for men.

(Ministry of Health, NZ, 2016)

An HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains, including the ones most likely to cause cancer. In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free for everyone aged 9 to 26 years. It is recommended to be given to children aged 11–12 years.

  • For children aged 9–14 years, the HPV vaccine is given as 2 doses, at least 5 months apart. This age group develops a stronger immune response than those vaccinated when they are older.
  • Children aged 15 years and older need 3 doses of the vaccine, spaced over 6 months.

The HPV vaccine currently recommended in New Zealand protects against the 4 most common strains of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. These are responsible for most of the cases of cancer and almost all of the cases of genital warts. The vaccine also protects against 5 other strains that can cause cancer.

The vaccine works by causing your body’s immune system to produce its own protection (antibodies) against the HPV types most likely to cause cancer or genital warts. If an immunised person comes into contact with HPV, the antibodies in their blood fight the virus and protect them against being infected. It usually takes several weeks after vaccination to develop protection against HPV. Read more about the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is only able to prevent HPV infection. It does not treat the infection. For best protection girls need to be vaccinated before they are likely to be exposed to HPV, which means before they start having any sexual contact.

Since the beginning of 2017, the HPV vaccine has been made free for everyone aged 9–26, including boys. It had previously only been free for girls. The HPV immunisation programme has been available in New Zealand since 2008.

Both girls and boys in Year 8 are offered the vaccine through their school, or through their GP if a school-based vaccination programme isn’t available. Read in-depth information about the HPV vaccine.

Many parents have questions about HPV and the vaccine. Here are some frequently asked questions and the answers:

1. Why should my child be vaccinated?

The HPV vaccine provides protection against a range of cancers and genital warts. It’s free for everyone aged 9–26 years of age, regardless of gender. Vaccinating your child helps stop the spread of HPV and reduces cancer diagnoses later in life.

In schools, 2 doses of Gardasil 9 is given to children aged under 14 years, and in 3 doses to young people aged 15 years and older. 

2. Isn’t the age group a bit young?

It’s best if your child is vaccinated before they start being sexually active. That’s because the vaccine works better before your child is exposed to the viruses. It’s hard to know when your child will start engaging in sexual contact, but many children start experimenting sexually at puberty, and some even earlier.

3. Is the vaccine safe?

As with any vaccine, there is a small chance of side effects. The most common side effects are pain, swelling and redness at the injection site. The most serious side effect of any vaccination is anaphylaxis (an allergic reaction), which usually occurs within minutes of receiving a vaccine and is extremely rare.

When you receive any vaccination, you will be asked to wait 20 minutes so medical treatment can be given if anaphylaxis occurs.

4. Where can I find more information?

If you have any questions, please talk to your GP or healthcare provider. There are also several websites with information about HPV and the vaccine

Immunise against HPV

Immunise against HPV
Ministry of Health, NZ, 2016

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Cervical smears and HPV

Cervical smears and HPV
New Zealand HPV Project, 2019

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

Reviewed by: Dr Jeremy Tuohy, Obstetrician & Researcher, University of Auckland; Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

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