Bernie Carter, MSc.
Cancer Nurse Specialist,Assistant Director of Nursing, Marie Keating Foundation
HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, is highly contagious — but we know how to stop it.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is so common that over 80% of people will be infected at some point in their lives. There are over 100 types, with about 13 ‘high-risk’ types that can cause cancer.
Bernie Carter, the Assistant Director of Nursing Services at the Marie Keating Foundation, explains: “HPV is extremely contagious. It can be transferred through any type of sexual contact — even just skin-to-skin in the genital area. Most people are infected with HPV shortly after the onset of sexual activity. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV.”
Don’t blame your partner
Carter says: “You could test negative for HPV then positive a few years later even if you have not been sexually active in between. Your results cannot tell how long HPV has been there, and having a positive HPV result does not mean your partner has had sex with someone else.”
High-risk HPV usually causes no symptoms, but it can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis and oropharyngeal (throat).
HPV can cause cancer in both men and women.
How to protect yourself
HPV can cause cancer in both men and women. Fortunately, we can all protect ourselves against cancers caused by high-risk HPV.
Protective measures include HPV cervical screening, limiting sexual partners, using condoms (though there can be skin-to-skin contact outside of the condom), quitting smoking and avoiding sexual activity. Vaccination is the most effective method, and the current vaccine used in Ireland is 90% effective against cervical cancer with protection against other HPV-caused cancers in both men and women.
Until 2019, the vaccine was free until the final year of secondary school. From 2019, anyone not in the first year of secondary school (or equivalent) must go to their GP or sexual health clinic and pay EUR 180–240 per injection. This is one of the reasons why the uptake of HPV vaccination in Ireland — previously around 80% — dropped to 50–55%. Thankfully, it is now up to roughly 70%.
Ireland catching up
Carter says: “Ireland had no catch-up programme offering free HPV vaccinations for children who missed them. Now, we are delighted to hear about the announcement of the Laura Brennan HPV Vaccine Catch-Up Programme.”
The programme, which is expected to launch in mid-November 2022, will offer free HPV vaccines to all in second-level education who have not yet received it. Young women up to the age of 25 will also be eligible to receive the vaccine.