HPV (also known as human papillomavirus) is a common virus that affects people of all genders and ages. In fact, if you’re sexually active, it’s likely you have had genital HPV at one point or other in your life. There are more than 100 different types of the virus. Most of them are relatively harmless and will go away on their own.
However, there are some types of ‘high risk’ genital HPV that can result in cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat over time. Other types of HPV cause genital warts.
How do you know if you’ve got HPV?
HPV infection usually has no signs or symptoms.
Visible genital warts are an indicator of HPV infection. However, many people who have the virus won’t have warts as their immune system keeps the virus under control.
Certain types of HPV affecting the cells in the cervix can be detected by Cervical Screening Tests.
How does it spread?
HPV is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. This means it is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact. Most people infected with HPV have no signs or symptoms but can still transmit the virus. That’s why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people. It is not known how long a person with HPV can remain infectious.
Vaccination and HPV
Vaccination plays a crucial role in both preventing the spread of HPV and ensuring your individual safety. The vaccine protects against nine types of HPV (including those that cause genital warts and most cervical cancers).
The vaccine is offered to all children in year 7 through the free Queensland Health School Immunisation Program. Vaccines are also free for young people who are not attending school (e.g. being home schooled).
If you or your child didn’t receive this vaccine when recommended, there’s a free catch-up vaccine for people aged 25 years or under. If vaccination is provided through a GP or other primary care provider instead of at school, the vaccine will be funded but there may be a consultation fee.
For most people, one dose of the HPV vaccine is required. For individuals who have certain conditions which result in a compromised immune system, a 3-dose schedule is required (with a 2-month gap and then a 6-month gap between doses). Missed doses should be given as soon as possible.
The benefits of HPV vaccination are greatest when they are given before exposure to the virus.
HPV vaccination is not routinely recommended for people 26 years and older because HPV infection generally occurs soon after sexual activity commences. Vaccine effectiveness is reduced if there has been a prior infection. However, some people 26 years and over may also benefit from being vaccinated and should speak to their GP for advice related to their individual circumstances.
The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy but is safe for breastfeeding women.
Contact your immunisation provider if you or your child has a reaction following vaccination which you consider serious or unexpected.
School Immunisation Program
To establish long-term health starting from childhood, the Queensland Health School Immunisation Program offers free vaccination for young people in year 7 and year 10. One of the vaccinations offered in year 7 is for HPV.
Before your child is immunised, they will be given an information sheet about the disease, the benefits of immunisation, and details of common side effects and a vaccination consent card. Read the information sheet, sign the consent form indicating whether you consent for your child to be vaccinated, and return it to the school. If you have misplaced the consent form, you can reprint it here.
If your child has missed a school immunisation, ask your GP about a catch-up vaccine. Keep in mind that while the vaccines are free, a consultation fee might be charged.
2023 change to the HPV vaccination recommendation
From February 2023, the HPV vaccination schedule for the HPV vaccine (Gardasil®9) changes to one dose.
This schedule change is based on a large volume of evidence that has emerged in recent years. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has reviewed international evidence and determined that a single dose of HPV provides comparable protection to two doses.
Through the School Immunisation Program, parents may receive information and a consent form referring to two doses of HPV. Beginning in the 2023 school year, only one dose of HPV will be given. Parents do not need to fill in a new consent form.
Most young people who have already received one dose of the HPV vaccine are now considered fully vaccinated and will not need further doses.
There is no change to the dose schedule for people who are immunocompromised. They should still receive the recommended three doses of the HPV vaccine which are all funded under the National Immunisation Program.
The catch-up program for young people who missed vaccination at school is also extended to include those up to and including 25 years of age (increased from 19 years of age).
Other ways to combat HPV
Regular Cervical Screening
HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 74 years should have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years to check for the presence of HPV and any changes to the cells in the cervix if HPV is detected. Regular Cervical Screening Tests are still important for people vaccinated against HPV since the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
People can choose for their healthcare provider to collect their Cervical Screening Test sample or to take their own sample (self-collection).
Using condoms will reduce your chance of catching HPV through sexual contact, but it doesn’t completely remove your risk as other areas of skin where virus is present may not be covered. Spermicides do not have any effect against HPV.
Find out more
If you’re keen to know more about other ways to protect yourself and others through vaccination, the Queensland Immunisation Schedule can guide you through what vaccinations are required to make sure you have the best protection through all stages of life.
To find out what vaccinations you have had, you can click here for information about accessing your Australian Immunisation Register record.