Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus which infects deep skin layers and also infects skin over the genital area.
There are over 225 types of HPV, 40 of these infect the genital tract.
HPV types can be further characterised into high and low risk types based on their ability to cause cancer. Persistent infection with high risk HPV types is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers in the UK.
Infection with low risk types leads to warts on skin and genital areas. Transmission of HPV is mainly through sexual contact with the exception of some low risk types.
The majority of infections tend to disappear within 12 to 18 months with no apparent disease.
The HPV vaccine has been rolled out in the UK since 2008. In England girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years old are offered this as part of the NHS vaccine programme.
The first vaccine is offered in year 8 with the second 6-24 months later.
Sometime during the 2021/22 academic year, the HPV vaccine used within the NHS programme is Gardasil 9. This protects against 9 types of HPV: 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. It is HPV 16 and 18 which cause the majority of cervical cancers in the UK, over 80% in fact. With a further 15% caused by types 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
With the advent of the vaccination programme, alongside screening, cervical cancer may be eradicated in the next couple of decades.
The way samples are looked at following a smear test has changed. The cells used to be looked at down a microscope to detect any cell changes. However testing for the presence of HPV is now the test of choice. HPV testing has been proven to be more sensitive in detecting potential cell changes and abnormalities.
You will receive results which are based initially on the HPV test. As HPV is the driver for almost all cervical cancers, if HPV is not found on your smear cycle you will be advised of a negative result. This means your next screening test will be in 3 to 5 years, dependent on age currently in England.
Should HPV be detected on your smear test, the cells in your sample will then be looked at further. This is to determine if there are any cell changes. The results of this will determine what happens next, you will either be invited for a further smear in 12 months or referred for treatment which is called colposcopy.