The Connection Between HPV and Cancer

By Diane M Harper, MD, MPH, MS Professor of Medicine Center of Excellence for Women’s Health Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Community and Family Medicine and Biomedical and Health Informatics University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine

Posted on | By Diane M Harper, MD, MPH, MS
Does the virus go away? Or am I stuck with it like with herpes or HIV?

HPV is not like HIV or HSV or Hepatitis B, the other viruses associated with sexual activity.  HPV is not transmitted by blood, by semen, by fluids, by saliva, or by secretions. Getting a natural HPV infection will not produce lasting immunity; hence, you can get this same type of HPV infection over and over again. 

It is a virus that is almost undetected by the body, and 90% of the time HPV never does anything bad to the human body. Only in 5% of infections do precancerous changes happen.

Genital warts are much more rare than infections with cancer-causing HPV types. For every one person with genital warts, there are 25 women with abnormal Pap tests due to HPV infections. 

What are the best ways to prevent getting HPV?

Be choosy about your sexual partners. The more partners you have, the more likely you will get HPV.  Condoms can prevent some HPV infections, but condoms do not prevent all infections. Condoms only cover one part of skin (the penis) that could be exposed to or transmitting HPV.

What cancers does it cause? Does it really cause 1 out of 20 cancers?

Eighty-eight percent of all HPV-associated cancers are cervix cancer, by far the most common cancer from HPV infection. The next most common type of HPV associated cancer is anal cancer, followed by oral, penile and vaginal cancers. 

Considering the whole world, HPV causes 1 in 20 cancers. In developed countries like the US, HPV causes 1 in 50 cancers, but in developing countries like Guatemala, HPV causes 1 in 15 cancers. 

Should I get the vaccine? How does it work?

First of all, there are two HPV vaccines: Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil protects against HPV 6 and 11, which cause genital warts. It also protects against HPV 16 and 18, the two most common cancer-causing types. Gardasil is proven to work for at least 5 years only if all three doses are taken on time.

Cervarix protects against seven high-risk HPV types: HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 51, 52 and has cross protection shown to prevent 30% of genital warts. Cervarix is proven to work for at least 9.4 years, and still works if only one dose (for 4 years) or two doses are received. 

Article written by Diane M Harper, MD, MPH, MS
Professor of MedicineCenter of Excellence for Women's HealthDepartments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Community and...