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What is it

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. It can potentially affect any sexually active man or woman.1

There are different types of HPV that affect different parts of the body. Some of these can cause anal and genital warts and others can lead to more serious consequences such as cervical, penile and anal cancers. Other types of HPV can cause certain cancers of the head and neck.2

As HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections2 it is estimated that the majority of sexually active Canadians will have a sexually transmitted HPV infection at some point in their lives; it is estimated that more than 70 per cent of sexually active Canadian men and women will have a sexually transmitted HPV infection at some point in their lives.2

What are the symptoms

Because there are different types of HPV, different parts of the body can be affected by the virus. Most HPV infections occur without any symptoms and go away without treatment.1,2

HPV can cause genital warts, however these strains of HPV do not cause cancer.1 In some people HPV infections can persist. This is especially dangerous if the persistent infection is a cancer-causing type. In some cases HPV can cause penile, anal, cervical, vulval and vaginal cancers.1,2 Persistent HPV infection with a cancer-causing type is the major cause of cervical cancer.1,2

How is it spread

The strains of the HPV virus causing genital disorders are passed from person to person through skin-to-skin and sexual contact.2

How is it prevented

Transmission can be reduced through safer sex practices including the consistent and proper use of condoms as well as a reduction in the number of sexual partners. Abstinence from all sexual activities offers protection against sexually transmitted infections.2

HPV is vaccine-preventable. The vaccine is most effective when given before someone is sexually active. There are now two HPV vaccines authorized for use in Canada, Gardasil® and Cervarix®.2 Gardasil® protects against four HPV types, two that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers and two that cause 90 per cent of all genital and anal warts.2,3It is approved for use in females ages nine to 45,3 and males aged 9 to 263. Cervarix®, protects against the two HPV types that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers, and has recently been approved for use in Canada for females aged nine to 25.2,4

How is it treated

Early detection is crucial to identifying cancerous and pre-cancerous cells, and can vastly improve a woman's treatment options and survival rate should she be diagnosed with cervical cancer or its precursors. The HPV vaccines currently available do not protect against all cancer-causing types of HPV, so all women, including those who have been immunized, should continue to undergo regular cervical cancer screening (i.e., Pap tests).2 Medical advice is recommended for the onset of symptoms. For further information regarding HPV and immunization, please speak with your healthcare provider.


  1. World Health Organization. Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer Fact Sheet. (2017).
  2. Government of Canada. Human papillomavirus (HPV) (2013).
  3. Merck Gardasil Product Monograph. (2015).
  4. GSK Cervarix Product Monograph (2014)