Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an umbrella term for more than 200 known viruses. In most cases, these viruses are contained and controlled naturally by the body, with no health effects. Over the past three decades, considerable data has linked high-risk forms of HPV with certain types of cancer, including cervical, vaginal, and anal variations of the disease.
What is Human Papillomavirus?
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that affects the skin, throat, and genital area. Most sexually active adults will be infected by HPV, but symptoms are rare. In most cases, HPV will resolve itself without care. The most common manifestation of HPV is genital warts, which is a treatable condition.
HPV and Cancer
Other HPV variants are more concerning. Certain types of human papillomavirus can trigger abnormal cell development, leading to cancer. Luckily, there are several vaccines to prevent cancer from HPV infection, though there are no cures for cancers already present in patients.
Related: What is Cervical Cancer?
Vaccination and cervical cancer screenings are critical components of mitigating HPV risks. To date, cervical cancer remains the only type of cancer with a viable screening test to provide early detection, well before the presentation of symptoms. The test is designed to identify the earliest stages of cancer cell development and should be a routine part of healthcare for women and transgender men.
Vaccination remains the most effective method to prevent both HPV infection and the long-term development of related cancers. Most healthcare experts recommend vaccinating girls aged 9-14 or before they become sexually active. Other preventative measures include:
- The use of condoms
- Male circumcision
- Smoking cessation, which may reduce the risk of repeat or persistent infection
Talk to your doctor about regular HPV screenings. Starting at age 30, women and transgender men with cervixes should undergo HPV screening and evaluation every 5-10 years.
Signs and Symptoms of Human Papillomavirus
Very few patients exhibit symptoms from HPV, which makes detection difficult. In most cases, the immune system can fight off an HPV infection within a few months to a year, with no harmful effects.
Cervical, mouth and throat, anal, and vulvic cancers caused by HPV can take as long as 20 years to develop after the initial HPV infection. There are few symptoms during this development period, and symptoms that do present, such as subtle bleeding after intercourse, can be confused with symptoms of other diseases.
More than 625,000 women and nearly 70,000 men will develop HPV-related cancer each year. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of cervical HPV (24%), with Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia accounting for nearly half of all global cases.
The scale of the problem has pushed the World Health Organization to prioritize HPV and cervical cancer as a global public health priority. WHO has established several goals to mitigate the risk and address cancer rates worldwide, including vaccinating 90% of girls by age 15 and screening 70% of women at least once by the age of 25.
Cancer prevention is our mission, too. As a leading cancer prevention organization, we provide programing, advocacy, and resources to address HPV, cervical cancers, and barriers to care in the US and around the world. Together, we can save countless lives – support our work.