What is HPV?
HPV is a virus that is passed through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. It does not require sexual intercourse to be passed, but can also be passed through oral or manual sex (sex involving mouths or hands), sharing sex toys, or simply skin rubbing together. It can occur in around the vagina, penis, anus, and throat.
HPV is very common. Up to 80% of people who have not received the HPV vaccine will have it at least once in their lifetime. Most of the time HPV is not harmful; most people do not have any symptoms, and won’t know they have it (but can still pass it on to someone else).
Some types of HPV cause genital warts, which are painless bumps that are only harmful in very rare circumstances. Other types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix (opening to the uterus) as well as less commonly the anus, vagina, penis, genital area, and throat.
How do I get tested for HPV?
Currently there is no routine test for HPV. Genital warts can be diagnosed with a visual exam. Pap tests are used to screen for pre-cancerous or cancerous changes in cells of the cervix caused by HPV.
Pap Tests: A Pap test, also known as a Papanicolaou test or Pap smear, looks to see if there are abnormal cells in the cervix. If abnormal cells are found, there is treatment to prevent them from developing into cervical cancer. It is a very simple and easy test that can be done at Everywoman’s Health Centre, your family doctor, a walk-in clinic, an Options for Sexual Health clinic or another sexual health clinic. In BC, it is recommended that you get your first Pap test at age 25 and if you are having normal results, to continue getting tested every 3 years until age 69. If you get an abnormal result, you will need to get tested more often or may be recommended to go for a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a specialized test where they take a sample of the cervix to get a better look at the cells. Your appointment is booked automatically by the BC Cancer Agency but it may take a few months for it to be booked. Once you have gone for the colposcopy, the colposcopy clinic will then recommend the next steps.
To learn more about Pap tests, please visit: www.bccancer.bc.ca/screening/cervix
How is HPV treated?
If someone has genital warts, they can be treated, which is usually only necessary for cosmetic purposes. If someone has an abnormal Pap test, they may need to be tested more often or have additional kinds of testing, treatment, and sometimes surgery. When necessary, treatment can be successful in preventing cancer from developing. For more information on abnormal pap tests, please see: http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/screening/Cervix/Results/
How is HPV prevented?
Using barriers during sex (such as condoms during vaginal, anal and oral sex and dams placed over a vulva or anus during oral sex), can reduce the chances of HPV being passed. However, because barriers do not cover the whole genital-anal region, they do not provide complete protection. The best protection against HPV is the vaccine.
The HPV Vaccine: The HPV is the world’s first anti-cancer vaccine. It includes two shots if you start before the age of 19 or three if you start later. It is most recommended for those under age 26, men who have sex with other men, transgender and HIV positive folks and those who have had an abnormal pap test. Because we can get HPV throughout our sexual lives, there can also be benefit for anyone to get it, even if they don’t fit into these categories.
The HPV vaccine is provided free to students in grade 6 in BC. If you are under 19, but did not get it in school, then it is still covered by your BC medical insurance (Care Card). If you get your first shot before the age of 19, the second shot will be covered until your 26th birthday. If you are covered with your Care Card, then you can go to a Public Health Unit to get the vaccine for free. You can find the one closest to you at: immunizebc.ca/finder
You can learn more about the vaccine and who it is covered for it here: immunizebc.ca/hpv
The vaccine may also be covered under an extended health plan through your work, school, parents or the government. If you are not covered with BC medical insurance (a Care Card) or an extended health plan, the three shots of vaccine will cost about $500-600. You can get the vaccine at a public health unit, family doctor, walk-in clinic, or Options for Sexual Health clinic.
HPV vaccines are very safe. The newest HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, protects against approximately 90% of both genital wart and cervical cancer cases. If enough people get the vaccine we could eliminate cervical cancer in Canada.
You can learn more about the vaccine’s safety and other frequently asked questions here: immunizebc.ca/hpv/frequently-asked-questions
Questions? Contact the Sex Sense Line at 604-731-7803, 1-800-739-7367 or www.sexsense.org.