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Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

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. 

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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.

What is the HPV vaccine and who can get it?

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

The vaccine works best for girls and boys who have not been exposed to the virus through sexual activity although HPV vaccine can also be given to adults up to 26 years of age.

In Ireland, the HPV vaccine is offered free of charge to all girls in their 1st year of second level school. The vaccine is given through injection into the upper part of the arm in two doses, six months apart, via a school-based programme. However, in specific instances some girls will be invited to special HSE clinics for their vaccines. The vaccine can also be given to boys and in some countries is given to both genders to reduce the risks of several types of cancer.

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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 a smear test?

Yes. The vaccine against HPV reduces your risk of cervical cancer but does not remove it. So it is important that all women, aged 25 to 60, continue to have regular cervical smear tests.

Before having the vaccine, discuss this with your GP.

All women, aged 25 to 60, 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 smear tests to women aged 25 to 60.

You can choose to have a free smear test from any smeartaker (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 the 4 strains of the virus. 10 years has elapsed since the first trials and testing of those patients 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. Research by multiple independent, international experts analysing the 80 million vaccinations administered to date has found no difference in the rates of serious illnesses between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Two vaccines are licensed to prevent HPV infections: Gardasil and Cervarix. The Gardasil 4 vaccine is the one currently used in the national vaccination programme for second-level school 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) has reviewed the evidence on the safety of Gardasil vaccine. The WHO concluded in December 2015 that Gardasil continues to have an excellent safety profile.

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.

Can the HPV vaccine be given to boys?

Yes - HPV vaccines have also been shown to be effective in preventing infection in men. Some countries, for example Australia and the United States, recommend routine vaccination for boys. This is not recommended as part of the school programme in Ireland at present. If you wish to get your son vaccinated you will need to pay for the vaccine and the administration of the vaccine privately with your doctor.

The vaccination of teenage boys increases the preventative effects of the vaccine against other cancers, such as anal cancer, where HPV infection can be associated and also prevents HPV-vaccinated boys passing the infection to unvaccinated partners.

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

Donal Buggy, the Irish Cancer Society's Head of Services and Advocacy, explains the Irish Cancer Society's position on the HPV vaccine:

"Every year around 420 men and women in Ireland are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV infection. These HPV-caused cancers claim up to 130 lives annually.

“The fact that we now have a vaccine that can significantly reduce these cancer incidences and save lives should mean that these numbers will fall substantially in the coming years. However, reports that uptake of the vaccine among first-year second level school girls, to whom it is offered for free, has dropped from 87% to as low as 50% in the space of two years, is hugely concerning. If this worrying trend is not reversed, women will continue to die needlessly from HPV-caused cancers.

“While 335 women are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV each year, it is also important to note that 85 men in Ireland annually develop a cancer which could potentially be prevented by a simple and safe vaccination. While boys can avail of the HPV vaccine through their GP, for a fee, the Irish Cancer Society believes it is time for the Government to invest in the extension of the national HPV school vaccination programme to boys, so that as many lives as possible can be saved.”

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