What is HPV?

Human Papilloma virus (HPV) is a common, sexually transmitted virus. When not vaccinated, most people will be infected with HPV at some point in their life time. HPV is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract and is the cause of a range of conditions in both men and women, including precancerous lesions that may progress to cancer, and genital warts.

How common is HPV?

HPV is the most common infection in the reproductive system caused by a virus. I fact, most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives and some may be repeatedly infected if not vaccinated prior to sexual debut.

As of 2017, it is estimated that the prevalence of HPV in women in the Americas is 16.1%.

How is HPV spread?

HPV is mainly transmitted through sexual contact and most people are infected shortly after the onset of sexual activity if not vaccinated. HPV is sexually transmitted, but penetrative sex is not required for transmission. Skin-to-skin genital contact is a well-recognized mode of transmission, and HPV can be transmitted even when the infected person has no signs of symptoms.

How is HPV prevented?

The best way to prevent HPV is through vaccination prior to sexual debut. Three highly effective and safe vaccines are licensed for preventing infection against high risk HPV types: bivalent, quadrivalent and nonavalent. They are also highly efficacious in preventing precancerous cervical lesions. The quadrivalent and nonavalent vaccines are also highly efficacious in preventing genital and anal warts. WHO recommends that all countries proceed with nationwide introduction of HPV vaccination.

Condoms help reduce the chances of infection but do not eliminate it completely, since the virus can be harbored in places in the genital and anal area that are not protected by a condom. Condom use is still advisable since they can prevent other sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

HPV does not cause any symptoms, and the infection will most often disappear on its own. Most people will never even know that they are infected with HPV. HPV infections usually clear up without any intervention within a few months, and about 90% clear within two years.

What are the problems of HPV?

Although the majority of HPV infections do not cause symptoms and resolve spontaneously, persistent infection with HPV may result in disease. In women, persistent infection with specific HPV types (most frequently HPV-16 and HPV-18) may lead to precancerous lesions which, if untreated, may progress to cervical cancer. HPV infection is also associated with oropharyngeal and anogenital cancers and other conditions in men and women. Non-cancer-causing types of HPV can cause genital warts which are very common and highly infectious.

HPV infection causes 72.000 cases of cervical cancer and 34.000 cervical cancer deaths in the Region of the Americas each year (2018 data).

How does having HPV affect a pregnant woman and her baby?

This is not common, but in some cases if the woman has visible genital warts in the birth canal, she can spread the virus to the baby during delivery.

How is HPV diagnosed?

Infection by HPV can be detected with the HPV test, given to women during a gynecological exam. The HPV test is a relatively new test, that is not available in all countries. An HPV test is generally given to women over 30 years of age to detect HPV infection. If an HPV infection is detected, there is a greater risk for the woman to develop precancerous lesions in her cervix. For this reason, it is very important that women detected with an HPV infection receive follow up medical care and treatment for precancerous lesions, as needed. If precancerous lesions are left untreated, it will likely develop into cervical cancer.

What is the treatment for HPV?

There is no treatment for the virus, but there is treatment for the health problems caused by HPV infection.

    • Genital warts: Genital warts are visible, soft, moist, and skin-colored bumps. In women, warts are found around the vagina, cervix or anus. In men, genital warts may appear on the tip of the penis. Warts caused by HPV may disappear on their own or may require treatment. It is possible for warts to go away spontaneously, and re-appear again. Medical care should be sought for wart removal.

    • Precancerous cervical lesions: If a screening test detects changes in the cervical cells, a woman will usually need another test by a medical doctor during a gynecological exam. This is called colposcopy, and may be performed with or without a biopsy. If a precancerous lesion is diagnosed, treatment is given to prevent the development of cervical cancer. Treatment involves removing the lesions. Detection of HPV infection, and screening for precancerous lesions followed by timely treatment are essential for the prevention of cervical cancer. For more information visit PAHO’s page on HPV and Cervical Cancer.