What is HPV?
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common viral infection that can cause skin warts and affect the genital tract in both men and women. HPV has been identified as one of the main causes for atypical changes in cervical cells - in a very small percentage of women, HPV infection can lead to precancer or cancer, making testing very important.
There are many different types of HPV. Low risk types may cause genital warts and minor changes in the cervix. High risk types cause minor changes and sometimes cause precancerous changes and cervical cancer.
HPV does not cause you to feel unwell or experience irritation, discharge or bleeding. In fact, most women with HPV changes don’t ever develop warts and are unaware they have the infection. HPV may be present for several years before it causes changes in the cervical cells that are identified in a routine test. However, HPV can be detected through a simple test which identifies the presence of high risk types linked with cervical precancer and cancer.
Screening for HPV
From December 2017, the way Australian women will be screened for cervical cancer will change. Under the new guidelines, a sample of cells is collected from the cervix which will be analysed to identify the presence of HPV viral DNA at the molecular level. The process of collection for patients is largely the same as before although this new method will allow for more accurate results as well as a longer time between tests. Women aged 25 to 74 years will be invited every 5 years to have a primary HPV test - this includes both vaccinated and unvaccinated women. This change is based on evidence that cervical cancer in young women is rare and screening patients younger than 25 years of age has not altered the number of cervical cancer cases in this group. This measure also prevents the over treatment of common cervical abnormalities in young women, which usually resolve naturally.
The process of collecting cells for the HPV test is simple. Cells are collected from the cervix with a broom-like device and sent to the lab for analysis. The information about your HPV result, enables your doctor to assess whether you require further investigation or normal ongoing HPV screening. If changes are present in your test and you have a high risk HPV type, your doctor may suggest a colposcopy.
Your doctor will determine the chance of risk of infection - there are three risk categories:
• Women who are classified as Low risk will be re-invited to re-screen in five years.
• Women who are classified as Intermediate risk will be invited to have another HPV test in 12 months. This is to check that the infection has cleared.
• Women classified at Higher risk will be referred directly to colposcopy for further investigation.
How do you get HPV?
HPV is an infection that can affect anyone who is, or has been, sexually active and is not uncommon. In most cases, HPV infection is temporary and harmless, causing no problem. However, persistent infection with a high risk HPV type can be linked to an increased risk of precancerous changes and cancer of the cervix.
Cervical cancer is a rare condition. Advances in cytology testing have led to the prevention of many cases, with procedures such as the HPV test playing a role in reducing cervical cancer.