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What is HPV? 

How is HPV transmitted? 

How exactly does HPV infection cause cervical cancer? 

How common is cervical cancer? 

Can cervical cancer be prevented? 

 

What is HPV? 

HPV (human papilloma virus) is a group of more than 100 viruses. HPV infection is very common. In fact, around 80% of sexually active women become infected with HPV at some stage in their lifetime. Most of these infections have no noticeable symptoms and over 90% are cleared by the body’s immune system.

However, some people will develop infections that need treatment, such as genital warts, while others seem to be more susceptible to persistent infections. These can lead to abnormal changes in the cervix (entrance to the womb). 

If left untreated, these changes can develop into cervical cancer.

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How is HPV transmitted? 

HPV can be transmitted during sexual intercourse or genital contact with an infected person. Transmission from mother to baby can also occur immediately before or after birth.

 

How exactly does HPV infection cause cervical cancer? 

HPV can infect the cells on the surface of the cervix, damaging them and causing their appearance to change. This can lead to abnormalities in these cells over a number of years. 

These abnormalities are known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). CIN changes are classified according to their severity. 

Mild lesions are known as CIN 1 and severe lesions are described as CIN 2 or 3. In some cases, more severe lesions can develop into cervical cancer.

The progression of CIN changes to cancer takes many years, so these abnormalities are considered ‘pre-cancerous’.

HPV types are referred to by number (assigned in the order in which they were discovered). Two types of HPV, 16 and 18, cause seven out of 10 of all cervical cancers. 

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How common is cervical cancer? 

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women with an estimated 520,000 new cases and 274,000 deaths every year. In Ireland, over 200 new cases are diagnosed and around 80 women die from the disease annually.

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Can cervical cancer be prevented? 

The good news is that the early pre-cancerous changes that occur to cells in the cervix can be detected by means of a simple test, called a smear test (or ‘pap’ smear). This means that the abnormal pre-cancerous cells can be destroyed before they turn into cancerous cells. It is estimated that smear tests can detect up to 90% of potential cervical cancers.

A national cervical screening programme has been in operation in Ireland since September 2008. CervicalCheck, The National Cervical Screening Programme, provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60. For more information click on www.cervicalcheck.ie

From September 2010, young girls in Ireland were able to avail of the HPV vaccine free of charge. The vaccine is available to first and second year secondary students through their schools. 

It is offered to this age group because at older ages, it becomes less effective due to an increased likelihood of females being exposed to the virus through sexual contact.

More information on HPV can be found at www.hpv.ie

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