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What is HPV and how does it cause cervical cancer?

A Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV, a common virus that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is passed on by genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. It can infect people of all genders and sexualities. The virus is spread through tiny breaks in the skin, it is not passed on by blood, semen or saliva.

You can get HPV:

  • the first time you are sexually active
  • if you are in a monogamous relationship
  • if you have not been sexually active in a long time
  • if you have had the HPV vaccine.

HPV is very common. About 8 out of 10 sexually active adults will have an HPV infection in their lifetime.

There are over 200 different types of HPV, but there are a few high-risk types that are linked with cervical cancer.

How does HPV cause cervical cancer?

HPV usually doesn't have any symptoms and your body can usually get rid of most types of HPV naturally. However, if your body is unable to clear an HPV infection, it can, over time, cause changes to the cells in your cervix that, if left untreated, can become cervical cancer.

A persistent HPV infection usually takes about 10 to 15 years to cause cell changes that may develop into cervical cancer.

Detecting HPV early means that any cervical cell changes can be monitored and, if required, treated before they turn into cancer. That’s why having regular Cervical Screening Tests, every five years, is so important.

The HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine used in Australia is called Gardasil®9 and it protects you against nine types of HPV that are responsible for almost all cervical cancers, other HPV-related cancers and genital warts.

The vaccine is recommended for all Australians aged 9 to 25 and is free for people aged 12 to 25.

The HPV vaccine is offered to all Australian children aged 12 to 13 through the school-based National Immunisation Program.

Most people now only need to have one dose of the HPV vaccine, unless they are immunocompromised.

Immunocompromised people – including those living with HIV – may still need three doses of the HPV vaccine. Talk to your preferred immunisation provider to discuss how many doses are recommended for you.

Australians aged 12 to 25 who missed out on the HPV vaccine in school are encouraged to catch up for free at their local immunisation provider, doctor, or some pharmacies.

Find out about the HPV vaccine

Do I still need to do a Cervical Screening Test if I have had the HPV vaccine?

Regular cervical screening, combined with HPV vaccination, are the best ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. While the HPV vaccine will protect you against several types of HPV, including the main types linked with cervical cancer, it does not protect against them all.

Women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 75 still need to do a Cervical Screening Test every five years, even if they have had the HPV vaccine.

The Cervical Screening Test looks for the presence of HPV and can identify people who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. 

Look after your health, make sure you’re up to date with cervical screening.

Find out who needs to do the test 

Find out more about HPV and the HPV vaccine

Visit our HPV vaccine website for more information about HPV and the HPV vaccine. This website has up-to-date information for Australians from every state and territory and relevant information and resources for children, parents and carers, schools and health professionals.

Visit the HPV vaccine website

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