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Human Papillomavirus Viruses (HPV)

Human Papillomavirus Viruses (HPV)

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. HPVs are amongst the most common viruses in the world and are very numerous. There are more than 100 that can infect different parts of the body.

A person can be infected by more than one HPV at a time, and more than once in your lifetime. HPVs are the cause of most cervical cancers and can cause condylomas, also known as ano-genital warts.


Any person who engages in sexual activity, even without penetration, can catch an HPV. HPVs are transmitted during intimate skin-to-skin contact with or without penetration. HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Between 70 % and 80 % of men and women will be infected by an HPV at least once in their lifetime. A person can be infected by more than one HPV at the same time as well as more than once.

Signs and symptoms

People often do not realize they have been infected by an HPV because there are no signs or symptoms. This means that they can pass on the virus without knowing it.

Although an infection may disappear in time without treatment in most cases, it can persist for months without causing signs or symptoms. When this happens, HPVs can affect the cervix and cause lesions.

Some people with condylomas, don’t know they have them as not all ano-genital warts are visible to the naked eye. Every year in Québec, 14,000 men and women are diagnosed with ano-genital warts which can require several visits to the doctor and painful treatments.

Possible complications

  • Cancer of the uterine cervix (nearly 100 % of cases of cancer of the uterine cervix are caused by HPV)
  • Cancers of the vagina, the vulva, the penis and the anus (these cancers are rarer)
  • Some cancers of the mouth and throat

The burden of diseases caused by HPV

Cancer of the uterine cervix holds 2nd place in the most frequent cancers among women between 20 and 44. From 2004 to 2007, on average, 281 cases of cancer of the uterine cervix and 69 deaths were counted per year. And it’s an even higher number of women who are affected by HPV.

The most common type of screening test to detect cervical cancer is the Pap test, or cervical smear. The Pap test helps detect a lesion of the uterine cervix caused by an infection due to HPV at the earliest possible moment. However, this test only detects lesions caused by HPVs about once out of every two times. This is why it is preferable to protect oneself against these viruses rather than run the risk of catching them.

For each case of cancer of the uterine cervix, it is estimated that more than 180 women will have an abnormal Pap test. Abnormal Pap tests will usually require examinations and unpleasant treatments that are not without consequences for the health. Lesions detected during Pap tests are a major source of anxiety among women. The have to undergo complementary examinations and often uncomfortable treatments that can have an impact on their fertility.

The costs of screening services for cancer of the uterine cervix are very high, and part of these costs can be avoided by vaccination programmes.

The pyramid below shows the estimates of lesions to the uterine cervix causes by HPV infections in Québec per year.


Protection against HPV

There are four ways to protect against HPV. Nonetheless, using only one of these methods is not effective against HPV. You get the best protection by using all four methods.

The four ways to protect against HPV are as follows:

  • Vaccination: to prevent infection with the main HPVs associated with cervical cancer and those of the vulva, vagina, anus and ano-genital warts.
  • Cervical cancer screening: to detect abnormal cells in the cervix as early as possible.
  • Restricting the number of partners: the higher the number of sexual partners, the higher the risk of catching an HPV.
  • Using condoms: Condoms remains the best way of preventing all STIs. However, since condoms do not cover the skin around the genitals, transmission of HPVs remains possible.