Persistent human papillomavirus infection accounts for nearly 100% cases of cervical cancer. Vaccination of girls who have not yet initiated sexual activity is an effective preventive measure. However, women should still regularly undergo cervical smear tests.

Until today more than 100 types of human papillomavirus have been recognised, and 40 of them may infect epithelial cells of male and female genitals. Research has shown that most cervical cancer cases are caused only by a few types of the virus.

Cervical cancer is not the only disease caused by HPV

HPV is generally transmitted during sexual contact, including oral sex. Infection is possible even if contact is limited to the areas near the partners’ genitals.

According to various estimates, from 50 to 80% of all sexually active men and women become infected with the virus at least once in their lifetime.

HPV is not only the factor causing cervical cancer. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, infection with high-risk types of HPV accounts for approx. 5% of all cancer cases in the world. Apart from cervical cancer, it causes anal cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer and penile cancer, and also, more and more frequently – oropharyngeal cancer, laryngeal cancer, and oral cancer, which are linked to oral sex.

Main cause of cervical cancer

Usually HPV infection is symptomless and goes away by itself. Only a small percentage of women suffer from persistent infection, lasting several years, which in some can lead to the development of cancer.

Additional risk factors contributing to the development of cervical cancer include smoking, hormonal contraception, having multiple sex partners and infrequent use of condoms (using them, however, does not guarantee full protection against HPV!), vaginal and cervical infections.

What is important, having recovered from a HPV infection does not make one immune to the virus.

Vaccinations – effective prophylaxis

Currently there are two HPV vaccines available on the market. Both prevent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which account for approx. 70% of cervical cancer cases. One of them additionally prevents HPV type 6 and 11 infections, which cause genital warts.

Research has shown that vaccination of girls who have not yet initiated sexual activity is nearly 100% effective in preventing precancerous lesions in the cervix and cervical cancer. Based on the observations made so far, researchers estimate that vaccination could lower the risk of developing cervical cancer in a woman’s lifetime by 70%.

The effectiveness is substantially lower when vaccines are given to females after sexual initiation.

Vaccination does not release women from smear tests

The Polish Gynaecological Society and the Polish Paediatric Society recommend that girls aged 11-12 be vaccinated as well as girls aged 13-18 if they have not been vaccinated yet (so called catch-up immunisations).

Adverse reactions to the vaccination are rare and usually are mild and short-lasting.

In Poland, HPV vaccination is recommended, yet not obligatory, which means it is not financed from the state budget. However, many local governments provide funding for vaccination programmes.

HPV vaccination does not mean that women do not have to undergo smear tests, since cervical cancer can also be caused – although much more rarely – by other types of the virus than those present in the vaccines.

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