Optional banner to alert visitors of an upcoming event. You can link the event here.

Human Papillomavirus

99.7% cases of cervical cancer are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, affecting both men and women. HPV infects the skin and the mucous and in some people causes genital warts or abnormal cell changes leading
to cancer.

Types of HPV

There are over 200 different types of HPV, and at least 15 of these are considered high-risk for cervical cancer. In particular, types 16 and 18 are known to cause around 70% of cervical cancers.


HPV is very common; 80% of people will get it at some point in their lives. For most, the infection causes no harm, approximately 90% of infections are cleared by the immune system within 2 years, requiring no treatment. However, a small
number of people will get persistent HPV causing changes to cervical cells.


HPV infections cause no symptoms, most people will be unaware that they have had it. It can also stay dormant in the body for many years. This means it cannot be detected and cannot cause any harm. HPC can become activated (clinically
significant HPV) many years later. Only active HPV can be detected by cervical screening.

HPV and cervical cancer

Persistent HPV infections can cause cells in the cervix to change which can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer that can take many years to develop.


HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area including vaginal, anal and oral sex. It can also be transmitted by touching in the genital area and sharing sex toys.

Dr Rebecca Leon, GatewayC GP Lead, speaks to Kate Sanger from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust about knowledge of HPV. Recent research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust revealed 39% women worried about the stigma associated with HPV.

HPV vaccine

Currently, there are 3 different HPV vaccines in the UK that protect against high-risk HPV: Gardasil, Cervarix and Gardasil 9. All three vaccines provide protection against types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancer cases. Gardasil
and Gardasil 9 also provide protection against other types of HPV, including some that cause genital warts. Current evidence suggests the vaccine provides protection against HPV for a minimum of 10 years.

In England, all children aged 12-13 are routinely offered the Gardasil vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme. In other UK nations, due to variations in school year structure, the age range can be 11-13. The HPV vaccination was
introduced based on evidence it protected against HPV infection. Since then we have seen evidence of protection against pre-cancerous changes and also recently cervical cancer. A 2021 study showed that the HPV vaccine has reduced the
number of cervical cancer cases by almost 90% in women in their 20s in England who were vaccinated between ages 12-13. The study estimates that 17,200 pre-cancers and 450 cervical cancers were prevented by the HPV programme by mid-2019.

In the UK, women born after September 1990 will have been offered the HPV vaccine in school. Although the vaccine provides a good level of protection against cervical cancer, women are still invited to attend cervical screening
to ensure maximum protection.

Information icon

Additional resources

Link: Ten years on since the start of the HPV vaccine programme – what impact is it having?, Public Health England (2018)
Link: HPV stigma must end says charity, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (2018)
Link: HPV vaccine reduces cervical cancer risk, Cancer Research UK (2020)
Link: The effects of the national HPV vaccination programme in England, UK, on cervical cancer and grade 3 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia incidence: a register-based observational study, Falcaro M, et al. (2021)
Link: Prevalence of cervical disease at age 20 after immunisation with bivalent HPV vaccine at age 12-13 in Scotland: retrospective population study, The BMJ (2019)

NEW: GPs Talk Cancer podcast. Listen to our first episode.