Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and HPV Vaccine

What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. Some types of HPV are sexually transmitted, and HPV is the most common form of sexually transmitted infection in Canada. Up to 75 per cent of people will get the virus during their life and most people who get HPV will show no signs of it.

 

The types of HPV virus are grouped according to their link with cancer. Infection with the "low risk" HPV viruses causes genital warts. "High-risk" types are associated with 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Most women who have been exposed to HPV do not develop cancer of the cervix, even if the HPV is a cancer-causing type. However, in some women the infection can remain and slowly lead to cancer if it is not found and treated. Cervical cancer affects about 1,400 Canadian women and causes 400 deaths each year. In Ontario about 500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, leading to 130 deaths annually.

How does someone get HPV?
HPV can be passed from one person to another through direct skin-to-skin contact that occurs during sexual activity of any kind. People with HPV infection may not know that they have this infection because they may have no symptoms. However, they can pass the infection to their sexual partners. Depending on the type of HPV, their partners then have a chance of developing warts, cervical abnormalities, cervical cancer, or other genital cancers. Many people are exposed to the HPV virus over their lifetime. Condoms offer some protection, but the virus may be present on skin that is not covered by the condom.
What are the symptoms?
Many people can have HPV and not know it. If symptoms develop, it may take 2-3 months or even years for them to appear. Not everyone infected with HPV will develop warts. A person with HPV may carry the virus for the rest of their life.

Genital warts look like common skin warts. They usually appear as soft or hard, moist swellings, usually in the genital area. They often have a cauliflower-like appearance and may range in colour from pink, flesh-colour, white, brown or grey. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large. In women, they can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, and on the cervix. Men may develop warts around the entrance to the urethra, on and under the foreskin, on the shaft of the penis, and around the anus.

 How is HPV diagnosed?
HPV is diagnosed during a visual exam. In women, having a regular PAP test will detect the virus on the cervix.
How is it treated?
Treatments are available to remove warts for cosmetic reasons and may reduce the risk of transmission to sexual partners. Several treatments may be required before all the warts are gone.

Treatments used may vary depending on the number and location of the warts. Some common treatments available include:

  • Cryotherapy, a procedure which 'freezes' the warts with liquid nitrogen
  • Topical medications (e.g. podophyllin, trichloroacetic acid) applied directly to the warts
  • Laser treatment or minor surgery are often used to treat the cervix or other internal warts

Over-the-counter wart treatments should never be used in the genital area.

Can I give this to other people?
Yes. HPV is spread through close skin-to-skin genital area contact with someone who has the virus. Even people who don't have any visible warts may still unknowingly pass the virus to their sexual partner(s).
How can HPV and HPV-related problems be prevented?
  • Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Condoms will significantly decrease the risk of getting most STIs and will help lower the chances of getting HPV infection.
  • To prevent cervical cancer, make sure to have a regular Pap test.
  • There are two HPV vaccines available, Gardasil® and Gardasil®9, that protect against common types of HPV infections.
  • The vaccine(s) are publicly funded through The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care for all students beginning in grade 7 as well as certain high-risk groups. It can also be purchased privately with a prescription and may be covered through private insurance.
  • Ottawa Public Health offers the HPV vaccine(s) beginning in grade 7 through a school-based clinic program.
What does the vaccine do?
  • Being vaccinated will significantly lower the chances of getting both genital warts and cervical cancer. The vaccine is expected to provide long-term protection. If you have an infection with one of the HPV types in the vaccine, the vaccine will not prevent disease from that type, but will protect you against the other types of HPV covered by the vaccine.
  • Sexually-active vaccinated women must continue to have regular Pap tests because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types that cause cervical cancer.
How is the HPV vaccine given?
The vaccines(s) are given on a two or three dose schedule. The appropriate dosing schedule will be determined by your health care provider.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
  • The vaccine is licensed in Canada for females aged 9 to 45 and males aged 9 to 26.
  • The vaccine provides the best protection if given before becoming sexually active, although sexually-active women and men will still get good protection from being immunized.
Who should NOT get the HPV vaccine?
  • Girls and boys less than nine years of age.
  • Women who are or may be pregnant.
  • Anyone who is sick with a fever or has a moderate to severe illness should wait until they feel better to receive the vaccine.
  • Anyone who has an allergic reaction to a previous dose of HPV vaccine or is allergic to aluminium or yeast.
What are the side effects of Gardasil™?
  • The most common reaction to Gardasil™ is redness, tenderness and swelling where the shot was given.
  • Fever, nausea, dizziness and headache can also occur.
  • Difficulty breathing has been reported very rarely.
  • Allergic reactions such as hives, wheezing, or swelling of the face and mouth are very rare. If these symptoms occur, seek medical attention right away.

For more information

Call Ottawa Public Health Information at 613-580-6744 (TTY: 613-580-9656), toll free at 1-866-426-8885 or visit these additional web site resources:

Health Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada

Ministry of Health and Long Term Care

Who can I call for more information?
Phone the AIDS Sexual Health Infoline at 1-800-668-2437. The Infoline staff provide sexual health information and referral services in several languages to callers from across the province. The line operates from:
Monday to Friday: 10 am to 10:30 pm; Week-ends: 11 am to 3 pm

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