Cancer of the cervix is one of the most preventable of all cancers.
HPV and cervical cancer
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Condoms, if used properly and consistently, will give good protection against infection with HPV.
It is estimated that about 80 percent of sexually active women will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections have no symptoms, and in nearly all cases (especially in women under 30) the infection will clear on its own in 6-24 months, without the woman even knowing she had it.
However, in some women, the HPV infection will not clear and abnormal cells may develop on their cervix. If abnormal cells occur and go undetected and untreated they can progress to cervical cancer.
There are many different types of HPV
There are about 200 types of HPV. Over 40 types of HPV infect the cervix area, and of these about 15-20 types are termed ‘high-risk’. Persistent infection (one which does not clear on its own) with high-risk types of HPV infection can lead to abnormal precancerous cells developing, and without treatment these may progress to invasive cervical cancer.
Of these high-risk HPV types, HPV type 16 is the most common and is found in approximately half of all cervical cancers. HPV type 18 may account for around 10 percent of cervical cancers.
HPV and the risk of developing cervical cancer
Only women with a persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type are at risk of cervical cancer.
Having a smear test every three years is the best way to detect changes to the cells of the cervix that may later lead to cancer. Having regular cervical smears can reduce the risk of developing cancer by about 90 percent.
In New Zealand, the most important risk factor for developing cervical cancer is never having a smear or not having cervical smear tests regularly (every three years).
Smoking can increase a woman’s risk of HPV becoming persistent and the development of cervical cancer.
Other risk factors linked to sexual activity include starting to be sexually active at a young age, the number of sexual partners, recent sexual partners, having sexual partners who have other partners including both men and women.
Genital warts are caused by ‘low risk’ types of HPV that are not associated with cervical cancer.
Treatment of HPV infections
There is no treatment for persistent HPV infections. However, there is treatment for the precancerous cervical cell changes that HPV can cause.
Having a smear test every three years is the best way to detect changes to the cells of the cervix that may later lead to cancer.
Having regular cervical smears can reduce the risk of developing cancer by 90 per cent.
In this section
Immunisation is now available to help protect young women against the two common types of high-risk HPV that cause up to 70% of cervical cancer.
HPV testing provides an accurate way of telling if a high-risk type of HPV is present in a woman’s cervix. It helps to determine those women who need further assessment and those who don’t.