HPV (Human papillomavirus) is a very common sexually transmitted infection that causes almost all cervical cancers and genital warts, but it can also cause cancers of the throat, mouth, penis, anus and vagina. The HPV virus has many different strains (types). Some strains are more likely to cause genital warts and some strains are more likely to cause cancer.
Most people will have no symptoms and do not know they are infected. Luckily, most of the time their immune system will eventually clear the infection, but for a small percentage of people, HPV infections can lead to cancer.
Am I at risk?
HPV is very common. It is estimated that about 75% of sexually active adults will get at least one HPV infection. The virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as during vaginal, oral, or anal sex, and other intimate contact with infected people.
Anyone who has had sex is at risk. People who have had more sexual partners are more likely to get the virus. In addition, your risk also depends on how many sexual partners your partner has had.
One of the best ways of protecting yourself against HPV is to get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated helps boost your immune system against the virus, making you less likely to get infected. There are 3 vaccines available, all of which can be used for women, but only 2 can be used for men. The vaccines differ based on the strains of the virus covered and can only offer protection for the strains that the vaccine contains. Even if you've had a previous HPV infection, getting vaccinated can still be beneficial as it can protect you against other strains that you haven't been infected with before.
In Canada, publicly-funded HPV vaccination programs were made available for girls starting about a decade ago. However, only girls in certain grades were eligible for the program. This leaves many women nowadays who were too old at the time to participate in the publicly-funded vaccination program, though they can still benefit from receiving the HPV vaccine today. Men can also benefit from getting vaccinated, as it can help prevent anal cancers and genital warts caused by HPV. Some provinces have recently started offering publicly-funded HPV vaccination programs for boys.
Studies have shown that these vaccines are very effective at preventing HPV infections. All 3 vaccines provide protection against the strains that most commonly cause cervical cancer, but not all will protect you against genital warts. The vaccines that do protect you against genital warts cover strains that cause about 90% of genital warts. A health care professional can let you know which vaccine is best suited for you.
It is important to know that one shot is not enough. All 3 vaccines used to protect you against HPV infections need 2 or 3 shots to work best. It is very important to get your vaccinations according to the schedule set by your health care provider.
*We know that with your busy life it can be hard to find the time for vaccination. We can help. Our pharmacists undergo injection training to provide a convenient vaccination experience - no appointment needed.*
Another way of preventing HPV is by practising safe sex. Even those who are vaccinated should still practise safe sex, as the vaccines do not cover all the HPV strains. Condoms cannot completely protect you against HPV, since they do not cover all exposed genital skin. However, condoms are still strongly recommended and can help prevent other STIs. In addition, women who have received the HPV vaccine should still receive regular Pap (Papanicolaou) tests to screen for cervical cancer.
*Applicable vaccines and costs vary by province. Prescription may be required. Professional fees may apply.