Who Doesn’t Have It?
The 4th of March marks International HPV Awareness Day. This year’s international campaign theme is #onelessworry. The Human Papillomavirus, known as HPV, is one of the world’s most widespread viral infections, usually resulting from direct skin-to-skin contact during intimate sexual contact with someone who has HPV. The virus can be transmitted by penetrative as well as non-penetrative sexual contact and is thought to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. In the case of sexually active adults, 80% of us are affected by HPV at some point in our lives - so - who doesn’t have it?
The Sexually Transmitted Infections Education Foundation (STIEF) want to take this opportunity to raise awareness about this common health issue, as talking about HPV is an important step towards its elimination. It is timely also, to remind New Zealanders about Gardasil, the highly effective HPV-fighting vaccine that can massively reduce the risk of developing genital warts, as well as multiple different forms of cancer.
For the majority of the population, it is not a case of if, but when, you get exposed to one or more of the over 40 different strains of HPV that infect the ano-genital and throat areas. It is considered the 'common cold' of being sexually active. In some people, the virus is harmless and causes no symptoms. In others, it will go on to cause genital warts, which are undesirable but not life-threatening. However, in a few people, HPV can cause abnormal cells to develop in different parts of the body, which can lead to cancer, sometimes decades later. It isn’t possible to predict which group you will fall into if you do get exposed to HPV, but it is possible to protect yourself by getting vaccinated.
If we look at cancer risks, HPV is associated with almost 100% of cervical “pre-cancers” and cancers, and the detection and treatment of these creates a huge health burden for affected people. Each year in New Zealand there are around 25,000 abnormal smear tests, many of which lead to invasive and unpleasant colposcopy and other procedures. HPV infection can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus – and unfortunately condom use during sex doesn't reliably prevent transmission of this virus.
Aside from cancers of the cervix and genital regions, in recent years, there is a rapid rise in HPV-related throat (oropharyngeal) cancers, which were historically largely related to smoking and heavy drinking. These types of cancers affect the throat, and unfortunately notoriously difficult to detect, meaning that they are often only discovered in advanced stages.
The good news is that HPV infection and the resultant diseases are preventable. Vaccination against HPV infection has been available for many years and is highly effective and safe, with millions of doses administered worldwide. In New Zealand the HPV vaccine, known as Gardasil, is free for people aged from 9 years up to their 27th birthday. For those who have missed the school vaccination programme (year 8 students), the vaccine is available free of charge through their GP or health care provider. It is also safe to be given at the same time as the Covid-19 vaccine. Dr Cathy Stephenson, a GP with a special interest in youth health, says “I truly can’t think of a single reason not to get this vaccine. It’s safe, it’s free, it’s been extensively used and analysed around the world, and it prevents cancer.”
So, on Friday, as the world acknowledges the impact that HPV infection has had on so many lives, STIEF urges you to take action to prevent yourself from HPV-related disease and spread the word. Talk to the rangatahi in your lives – if they haven't had their Gardasil immunisations, encourage them to do so. For people with a cervix, including those who identify as men (transmen), HPV vaccination and regular cervical screening, is the most effective pathway to prevent cervical cancer. Together we have the opportunity to help eliminate HPV cancers for future generations. Let’s create a world with #onelessworry.
For more information visit NZ HPV Project.
About the Sexually Transmitted Infections Education Foundation (STIEF):
The Sexually Transmitted Infections Education Foundation (STIEF) is a registered charity providing governance and project management to the New Zealand HPV Project, New Zealand Herpes Foundation and Just the Facts (about sexual health and STIs). The organisation provides medically accurate information, support, education and resources based on current international best practice, regarding the optimal management of HPV, herpes and other STIs.