What is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)?

Graphic of HPV - the Human papilloma virus

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a family of very common viruses that are passed on during skin-to-skin contact, particularly sexual activity, including oral sex. 

There are over 100 types of HPV and most do not cause any problems. Certain types are considered high risk and increase the risk of cancer. For example, types 16 and 18 can cause cervical cancer and type 16 is common with anal cancer.

HPV types 6 and 11 are considered low-risk and cause genital warts. 

Most people will get HPV infection in their lifetime. Usually the body’s immune system finds the HPV virus and resolves 9 out of 10 infections within two years. If you smoke or your immune system is compromised, for example if you have HIV infection, it can prevent the infection from clearing up. 

What cancers are linked to HPV infection?

Most cervical cancers and anal cancers are caused by the HPV virus.

HPV has also been strongly linked to a number of other cancers including cancers of the mouth and throat, vulva, vagina and penis.

How does HPV cause cancer?

If a high-risk HPV infection doesn’t clear up it can damage the DNA in our cells. This can cause cells to divide and grow out of control which can lead to cancer. 

HPV vaccine thumbnail image with plaster and young teenagers
HPV vaccine and cancer infographic
Learn more about HPV and cancer, and the HPV vaccine. An A4 poster to download, share, or print.

It’s important to remember that having HPV is not a problem in itself. 

Most people have had it without even knowing they had it. 

What is the HPV vaccine and who can get it? 

The HPV vaccine works in the same way as other vaccines. The body reacts to the vaccine by making special proteins, called antibodies, which help the immune system fight and clear the HPV infection so it can’t cause cancer.

In Ireland, the HPV vaccine is offered free of charge to all students in their 1st year of secondary school. This is because the vaccine works best for girls and boys who have not been exposed to the virus through sexual activity.

The HPV vaccine can also be given to older children, teens and adults. Ask your GP about the benefits of the vaccine if you're not vaccinated.

Following disruption to the schools-based HPV vaccination programme during the pandemic, in 2023 the HSE initiated the Laura Brennan HPV Catch-up Programme, making vaccinations available free of charge to some people aged 16 and older who may have missed out.

This includes:

  • females in 2nd to 6th year of secondary school
  • females under the age of 25
  • males in 2nd to 4th year of secondary school
  • males in 5th year who skipped Transition Year

Who can book an appointment

You can book a HPV vaccine catch-up appointment if you are a:

  • female age 16 to 24 years
  • male age 16 or older who started 1st year of secondary school, homeschool or a special school between 2019 and 2021

To book a free appointment visit www.HPV.ie

The vaccine is given through injection into the upper part of the arm in two doses, six months apart, via a school-based programme. In some cases the vaccine may be given at special HSE clinics.

Two vaccines are licensed to prevent HPV infections: Gardasil and Cervarix. The HPV vaccine currently used in Ireland is called Gardasil 9, which protects against 9 out of 10 cervical cancers.  This is the vaccine that is currently used in the national vaccination programme for second-level school students.

In Ireland 660,000 doses of Gardasil have been administered and over 220,000 girls have been fully vaccinated against HPV. From September 2019, boys have also been offered the HPV vaccine. This is because HPV can cause cancers and genital warts in boys too.

Over 100 million people have been fully vaccinated with Gardasil worldwide. In Ireland over 500,000 people have taken the opportunity to get fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine through the school immunisation programme. The HSE's Laura Brennan HPV Vaccination Catch-Up Programme will give an additional opportunity throughout 2023 for eligible young people to get vaccinated

Frequently asked questions about the HPV vaccine

Does the vaccine fully protect me from HPV?

The vaccine does not protect you against all types of HPV. The vaccine targets the main HPV types. If you have been exposed to the virus already, the vaccine may not protect you.

I’m vaccinated. Do I still need cervical screening?

Yes. Vaccination greatly reduces the risk of getting cervical cancer but does not eliminate it altogether. There are 14 strains of HPV known to increase the risk of cancer. Vaccination protects against some, but not all, of these strains. It's important that all women, aged 25 to 65, continue to have regular cervical screening.

All women, aged 25 to 65, should continue to have cervical screening.

In Ireland, a national cervical screening programme began in 2008 called CervicalCheck. The Government funds this programme and provides free tests to anyone aged 25 to 65.

You can choose to have a free test from any doctor or nurse registered with CervicalCheck.

For more details about this service in your area, contact CervicalCheck at 1800 45 45 55 or visit www.cervicalcheck.ie

How long will the vaccine protect me?

The vaccine is designed to give lifelong HPV immunity to 9 strains of the virus (7 high-risk types that cause cancer and 2 low-risk types that cause genital warts).

Testing of patients who took part in trials 10 years ago has established that they are still immune.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

The HPV vaccination programme is safe. HPV causes a number of cancers in men and women, in particular, cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer can be prevented through the HPV vaccination by reducing the risk of infection by HPV strains known to cause this and other forms of cancer. 

There are three vaccines licensed for use in Ireland to prevent HPV infections: Gardasil 4, Cervarix and Gardasil 9.

The Gardasil 9 vaccine is the one currently used in the national vaccination programme for secondary-school-level girls. These vaccines are licensed by the Health Products Regulatory Authority and the European Medicines Agency. These agencies have strict procedures for the licensing and monitoring of all vaccines to ensure their safety and effectiveness.

Similar to all vaccines some effects can occur in people getting the injection. These can include pain from the needle, some redness, swelling or itchiness on the arm where the injection is given. Very occasionally, the person getting the vaccine can have a mild headache, feel a bit tired or sick. If these effects do occur, they pass quite quickly.

Over 200 million doses of Gardasil have been distributed worldwide, either as part of national immunisation programmes or by private doctors. Gardasil is currently used in over 25 European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In Ireland 660,000 doses of Gardasil have been administered and over 220,000 girls have been fully vaccinated against HPV.

The World Health Organization Global Advisory Committee for Vaccine Safety (GACVS) reviewed the evidence on the safety of Gardasil vaccine in June 2019. WHO has now reviewed HPV vaccine safety 8 times - in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019. WHO has never reported safety concerns about the HPV vaccine and in 2019 reported that there is robust evidence of HPV vaccine safety.

In November 2015 the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported on a review of HPV vaccines. This report found no evidence the vaccine was linked to chronic fatigue-like conditions.

What is the Irish Cancer Society’s positon in relation to the HPV vaccine?


Rachel Morrogh, Irish Cancer Society Director of Advocacy, explains the Society's position on the HPV vaccine:

“Every year over400 men and women in Ireland are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV infection. These HPV-caused cancers claim up to 100 lives annually.

“The fact that we now have a vaccine that can significantly reduce these cancer incidences and save lives means that these numbers will fall substantially in the coming years.”


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