Human papillomavirus (HPV) – prevention and screening

Human papillomavirus (HPV) – prevention and screening

What is human papillomavirus?

There are more than 100 different types of the human papillomavirus, twenty of which can cause cancer.

Type of cancer related to HPV in women Type of cancer related to HPV in men
Cervix Penis
Vulva Anus
Vagina Mouth
Anus Throat
Mouth  
Throat  

HPV infection can be contracted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity or sharing of sex toys. It often produces no symptoms.

The only sign of an infection is the appearance of warts inside or on the outside of genitals several weeks or even several years after sexual contact.

HPV and cancer—a few statistics

It is estimated that HPV will affect about 75% of sexually active Canadians at least once in their lifetime.

In the majority of cases, however, the virus will be eliminated via the immune system.

Nonetheless, the consequences of infection can be serious, as these Canadian statistics indicate:

Preventing HPV

Vaccination

The best protection against certain HPV infections for people who are sexually active is vaccination. However, the vaccine is not completely infallible; it does not protect against ALL types of HPV.

Some provinces offer the vaccine free of charge to young people.

Those who are not eligible for a free vaccine must pay for it or check whether it is covered by their group insurance.

Even if you have already contracted one type of HPV virus, it is not too late to get vaccinated. The vaccine will protect you against other strains, although it won’t cure the existing infection or any symptoms of the infection, such as genital warts and pre-cancerous or cancerous changes. Discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Screening for women

The earlier HPV is detected, the better the chances of recovery of someone who has been infected.

The health authorities recommend that women (even those vaccinated against HPV) have a Pap test every 2 years. The test detects whether a woman is at risk of developing cell changes in the cervix.

A DNA test can also identify HPV. It may not be covered by your province’s health insurance plan and so you may have to pay for it.

Medical monitoring for men

Men can also be infected by HPV and should regularly see their doctor who can detect the presence of genital warts and symptoms of cancer of the penis, anus, mouth or throat.

Sexual protection

Vaccinated or not, anyone who is sexually active must use a condom during sexual relations to protect sufficiently against HPV infection:

  • During contact of genitals
  • During oral, vaginal or anal sexual activity
  • At every sexual encounter

It is also advisable to use protection during oral relations. To protect the vulva or anus, slit a condom lengthways and then use this to cover the vulva or anus sufficiently.

Health authorities also recommend limiting the number of sexual partners.