“The human papillomavirus is really common,” explains Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. “Most of us will be exposed to it within a couple years of becoming sexually active.”

Understanding HPV

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, a virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, and both men and women can be infected.

In some cases, patients will show no symptoms and the virus will clear on its own. However, certain strains of the virus can lead to serious long-term and even life-threatening illnesses – most commonly genital warts and certain types of cancer.

“Not all kinds of the HPV virus cause cancers, but there are several in humans that do cause cancers and those are the ones that we worry about,” says Blake, who has received numerous awards for her contributions to women’s health including being named as one of the top 25 women of influence in Canada in 2011.

HPV can cause cancer of the vulva and vagina in women, cancer of the penis in men, and cancer of the anus, mouth or throat for both genders. Nearly all cervical cancers, one of the leading women’s cancers, are related to HPV.

“Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women between 20 and 44 in Canada and a third of the women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer, will die from it,” says Blake, adding that survivors of this type of cancer must also deal with complications with fertility, menopause, and sexual function.

A preventative approach

Though there is no treatment for HPV infections, HPV-related disease can be prevented. Limiting the number of sexual partners decreases the risk of being exposed to harmful types of HPV, using a condom reduces skin-to-skin contact that can help avoid infection, and not smoking enables the body to better fight off the virus.

In addition to these practices, Blake also recommends that patients – both young boys and girls – should get the HPV vaccination, ideally prior to becoming sexually active.

“Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women between 20 and 44 in Canada and a third of the women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer, will die from it.”

The latest form of the HPV vaccine, released in Canada in February, is approved for both men (age 9 to 26) and women (age 9 to 45). The injection, given in three doses over half a year, protects against nine types of HPV. Together, these strains of the virus cause approximately 90 percent of cervical cancers, 75 percent of HPV-related vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and more than 90 percent of genital warts.

According to Blake, the vaccine is the best defense against HPV-related illnesses, especially cervical cancer. “There’s nothing else that you can do that is going to give you 90 percent protection,” she says.

Safety first

The consequences of HPV can be devastating, but the success of the vaccine indicates that illnesses such as HPV-related cervical cancer can be safely prevented.

“We’ve now got a lot of experience with millions of doses given and so we absolutely know that this vaccine is safe and we know, on the other hand, that not giving this vaccine means women will get cancers and women will die from their cancers,” says Blake.

The latest HPV vaccine was tested in six clinical trials involving more than 13,000 people. The most common side effect for both men and women was soreness at the injection site.

Blake encourages all Canadians, particularly women, to speak with a physician about HPV and the vaccine, to protect against genital warts and HPV-related cancers. “In this case, doing nothing carries very well known and predictable risk,” she says.