The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was launched in 2008, and has since then been provided to girls aged between 11 and 13, and boys from 2019 onwards, on the NHS in the UK. A study published in The Lancet estimated that the reduction in cervical cancer rates by age at vaccine offer were 34% for age 16–18, 62% for age 14–16, and 87% for age 12–13, compared with those who were unvaccinated. The same study revealed that, ‘the HPV immunisation programme has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women born since Sept 1, 1995’.
The evidence of reduction in both HPV infection and cervical cancer rates makes this one of the most important breakthroughs in women’s health this century. However, you may be wondering, do I still need smear tests with the HPV vaccination? If you have received this vaccine, it is still possible for you to catch HPV, and therefore you should still attend regular smear tests to check for infection.
In this article, we take a closer look at HPV, how it can cause cervical cancer, and why regular screenings are so important.
What Is HPV And How Can It Cause Cervical Cancer?
HPV is a group of common viruses that affect the skin, mouth, throat and genital areas. As HPV is highly transmissible, most people will, at some point in their lives, catch some type of it through sexual contact, including penetration, skin-to-skin contact with genitals, oral sex and sharing sex toys. However, in most cases the body clears the infection itself and it does not cause any problems.
HPV and genital warts
In some people, the virus causes genital warts, which can result in small brown or pink warts appearing in the genital area in both men and women, possibly accompanied by itching, and bleeding during intercourse. Genital warts are infectious, and treatment can revolve around reducing or removing the warts to reduce the chance of infecting others. Left untreated, warts may go away on their own, become bigger or spread to other parts of the body. However, genital warts do not cause cancer.
HPV and cervical cancer
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, and there are around 13 high risk cancer-causing strains of the virus. HPV causes cancer by triggering changes to the DNA inside cells, making them behave differently. If these cells are left undetected, they can grow and become cancerous.
This can happen years after a person becomes infected with HPV.
HPV and other cancers
In addition to cervical cancer, there are several other cancers linked to HPV. These are:
- Oropharyngeal cancers, which develop in the throat
- Anal cancer
- Penile cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Symptoms of HPV
Besides genital warts, an HPV infection does not usually cause symptoms, and the virus can stay in your body for years undetected. In addition, precancerous cell changes on the cervix are usually symptomless.
Can I Still Get HPV Even If I’m Vaccinated?
Yes, you can still become infected with HPV even if you are vaccinated, despite the vaccination significantly lowering the risk of infection. No vaccine provides 100% protection.
The vaccine cannot cure an existing HPV infection. It is used as a prevention method, and is most effective when administered to a child of high school age. If you are 18 or older, you may still be able to access the vaccine through the NHS, or through private healthcare.
Condoms and dental dams can lower your risk of contracting or spreading HPV, but only slightly. This is because, as aforementioned, the virus is highly transmissible and it can also be spread through any close skin-to-skin contact.
How Can A Cervical Smear Help Prevent Cervical Cancer?
Whether you have received the HPV vaccine or not, attending regular cervical screenings is a must in order to test for HPV. The recommended time between screenings is three years, but if you receive a positive result, you should come back for testing the following year to check whether the HPV has been cleared or is still active in your body, and whether the virus has caused the formation of precancerous cells.
Dr Albert Aka, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Gynae Centre explains: “If precancerous cells are detected, you may be referred for a colposcopy, which involves a closer examination of the cervix. The procedure takes around five minutes and should be painful. If findings are abnormal, a biopsy may need to be taken. Following this, if necessary, you will undergo a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) procedure, which removes the abnormal cells.”
If you have to have abnormal cells removed, you will need to attend more regular screenings to check for recurrence.
According to Cancer Research UK, when cervical cancer is diagnosed at a very early stage, ‘around 95 out of 100 people (around 95%) will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after diagnosis’. This does not mean that those who receive a diagnosis have a life expectancy of five years – this is just the way in which the Office for National Statistics (ONS) captures data, and five years is a common measurement for survival. Those diagnosed with cervical cancer have every chance of living a long, healthy life, depending on a number of factors including:
- When the cancer was diagnosed
- Whether they have a genetic predisposition to cervical cancer
Book Your Screening Today
Testing regularly for HPV can save your life. Appointments take just a few minutes and you should only feel minor discomfort. If you would like to read about some tips on how to make your smear test more comfortable, read our article here.
If you would like to book an appointment for a smear test, click here.