Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

What is are human papillomaviruses, and how are they transmitted?

Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 100 viruses. They are called papillomaviruses because certain types may cause warts, or papillomas, which are benign (noncancerous) tumors. The HPVs that cause the common warts that grow on hands and feet are different from those that cause growths in the throat or genital area. Some “high-risk” types of HPV are associated with certain types of cancer, mostly commonly cervical cancer.

Of the more than 100 types of HPV, over 30 types can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. Although HPVs are usually transmitted sexually, doctors cannot say for certain when infection occurred. Most HPV infections occur without any symptoms and go away without any treatment over the course of a few years. However, HPV infection sometimes persists for many years.

How common is HPV?

Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection. About 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year.

Return to Top

How is it diagnosed?

Most women are diagnosed with HPV on the basis of abnormal Pap tests. A Pap test is the primary cancer-screening tool for cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, many of which are related to HPV.

No HPV tests are available for men.

Is there a cure?

There is no "cure" for HPV infection, although in most women the infection goes away on its own. The treatments provided are directed to the changes in the skin or mucous membrane caused by HPV infection, such as warts and pre-cancerous changes in the cervix.

What is the connection between HPV and cervical cancer?

All types of HPV can cause mild Pap test abnormalities that do not have serious consequences. Approximately 10 of the 30 identified genital HPV types can lead, in rare cases, to development of cervical cancer. Although only a small proportion of women have persistent infection, persistent infection with "high-risk" types of HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer.

A Pap test can detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix. Regular Pap testing and careful medical follow-up, with treatment if necessary, can help ensure that pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into life threatening cervical cancer. The Pap test used in U.S. cervical cancer screening programs is responsible for greatly reducing deaths from cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is the tenth most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in Vermont. Each year, approximately 31 Vermont women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 10 die from it.

Return to Top

How can people reduce their risk of becoming infected?

The surest way to eliminate risk for genital HPV infection is to refrain from any genital contact with another individual.

For those who choose to be sexually active, a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner is the strategy most likely to prevent future genital HPV infections. However, it is difficult to determine whether a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected.

In June 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the first vaccine developed to prevent certain types of HPV including two “high-risk” strains that cause most (70%) of cervical cancers.

More information about the HPV vaccine

Return to Top