How HPV is spread
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). You can catch HPV through any sexual contact or skin to skin contact with another person who has the virus. As HPV usually has no symptoms, most people don’t realise they’re infected.
Many people become infected with HPV. Most of the time, HPV doesn’t cause cancer because your body’s immune system kills the virus.
How HPV can affect your health
HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer. Some women infected with HPV don’t clear the virus. This can lead to changes in the cervix that cause cervical cancer if not detected and treated.
High-risk types of HPV are also linked to cancer of the:
- head and neck
Other types of HPV can cause:
- genital warts
- warts in the throat (laryngeal papillomas)
What the HPV vaccine does
The HPV vaccine used in Northern Ireland protects against four types of HPV:
- type 6
- type 11
- type 16
- type 18
Types 16 and 18 cause over 70 per cent of cervical cancer in Northern Ireland. The HPV vaccine also protects against genital warts.
The vaccine doesn't protect you against all other types of HPV or sexually transmitted infections. You still need routine cervical screening (smear tests) to check for cancer.
To read more about the HPV vaccine, go to:
Getting the HPV vaccine in school
Vaccination is a school-based programme. The HPV vaccine is offered to all 12 and 13 year old girls in year nine at school.
For the best protection against HPV, the vaccine is given before sexual activity usually starts.
If a girl in year nine is already sexually active, she can still get the vaccine as it may still protect her from the virus.
To ensure they are fully protected, girls need two injections at least six months apart.
If a girl misses one or both doses of the vaccine in year nine, her school health department will contact her in year 10 to complete the vaccination.
Parents or guardians of girls aged under 16 must give their consent before vaccination. You give consent by signing and returning the consent form to your daughter’s school.
You and your daughter can ask the school for more information about the vaccine.
Girls aged 16 and over can consent to get the vaccine unless they don’t understand what’s involved in giving consent.
Getting the HPV vaccine from your GP
You can ask your GP for the vaccination if you’re under 18 and:
- didn’t get the vaccine in school
- didn’t complete the vaccination course after year 10
If you start the vaccination course on or after your 15th birthday, you need three doses to be fully protected. This is because the antibody response is weaker in older girls.
If you're over 18 and believe the HPV vaccine could be beneficial, you can discuss this with your GP. They may prescribe the vaccine for you.
How the HPV vaccine is given
A nurse or doctor gives the vaccine as an injection in your upper arm. Staff from your local Health and Social Care Trust give the vaccinations if you’re in school.
Side effects of the HPV vaccine
Where the injection is given in the arm, the side effects are:
After the vaccine, some girls could also have:
On rare occasions, some girls have an allergic reaction to the vaccine. This might be a rash or itch affecting all or part of the body.
More rarely, girls can have a severe reaction within a few minutes of the injection. They may experience breathing difficulties and collapse. This is called an anaphylactic reaction. It is extremely rare and the nurse or doctor giving the vaccine is trained to deal with this extreme reaction. Girls recover completely with treatment, usually within a few hours.
As most side effects of the vaccine are mild, resolve naturally or can be treated quickly, girls can continue with the course of HPV vaccination. The vaccine meets rigorous safety standards required for it to be used in the UK and other European countries.
How long the HPV vaccine protects you
Girls who are vaccinated usually develop lifetime immunity from cervical cancer caused by HPV types 16 and 18. Their immune system develops antibodies to the virus after vaccination. They don’t need booster doses when they’re older.
Evidence that the HPV vaccine works
Among girls aged 16 to 18 in England, studies show a significant decrease in the two main HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
The number of pre-cancerous lesions in the cervix (changes in the cervix caused by HPV that can lead to cancer) has decreased by over 50 per cent since the vaccination programme began in Australia, Denmark and Scotland.
Safety of the HPV vaccine
Vaccines go through rigorous safety testing. The HPV vaccine was tested in thousands of volunteers before approval. There are HPV vaccination programmes for girls in:
- many European countries
There are no links between the HPV vaccine and chronic health conditions. There are also no known long-term side effects from the vaccine.
The vaccine is monitored and reviewed by:
- the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
- the European Medicines Agency (EMA)
- the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety of the World Health Organization
- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US
Medical reviews of the HPV vaccine: