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|
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:
- In 2017, some 1,500 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer. An estimated 400 of them died from it.
- Between 2012 and 2016, the annual incidence rate of cervical cancer was about eight cases per 100,000 women.
- Death from cervical cancer represents 1% of all cancer deaths.
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.
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.