What is HPV?
HPV is a sexually transmitted viral infection that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. HPV remains one of the most prevalent STIs globally:
- Nearly 7 out of 10 people are infected at some point in their lifetime
- HPV is the leading cause of sexually-related cancers and lesions
There are at least 100 different strains of HPV, of which more than 40 of them are transmitted via sexual contact, affecting your throat, mouth as well as genitals.
HPV can be classified under two major types:
- Low risk HPV (e.g. HPV 6, HPV 11)
- High risk HPV (e.g. HPV 16, HPV 18)
What are some of the most common HPV symptoms?
On most occasions, HPV infections don’t result in any noticeable symptoms and will often disappear on their own. But in rare cases, persistent infections can trigger the following symptoms:
- Genital warts that can manifest as small itchy, skin bumps.
- Common warts that exhibit rough, raised growths that develop on your fingers, hands, or elbows.
- Flat warts that appear as smooth, dark, and slightly raised lesions.
- Plantar warts that appear as hard spots on your heels or balls of your feet.
Important: Precancerous HPV strains don’t form warts; they don’t exhibit symptoms and can only be identified through HPV tests or PAP smears.
What are the complications of HPV?
Even though most HPV infections –especially those involving low-risk HPVs are generally harmless– HPV infections can still result in cancer.
In this respect, your risk of developing cancer is relatively high if you have:
- A compromised immune system
- Contracted the high-risk HPV types such as HPV 16 and HPV 18.
The most common types of cancer caused by HPV may include penile, cervical, anal, as well as the throat or oropharyngeal cancer.
Can HPV be cured?
Most HPV infections, particularly those that don’t show any symptoms, don’t require any treatment because the virus will diminish by itself. Treatment is only warranted if pre-cancerous growths develop, or when the infection has resulted in cancer.
However, there is no cure for HPV – meaning your body naturally gets rid of the virus. Nearly 80% of those infected by HPV are able to naturally eliminate the virus from their body within 24 months. But if this doesn’t happen, the infected individual will either develop genital warts or cancer.
The best way to protect yourself from HPV is by getting the HPV vaccine.
What is the HPV vaccine?
Bearing in mind that there is no cure or direct treatment for HPV, the best way to curb HPV infection is through vaccination.
While the vaccine does not provide 100% protection, it still protects against numerous high and low-risk strains of HPV. Notably, it substantially minimizes your risk of cervical cancer.
On that note, while the HPV vaccine is often marketed by the government as prevention against cervical cancer in women, the vaccine also benefits men in equal measure.
HPV vaccination may help curb conditions such as
- Vaginal, cervical, and vulva cancer in women.
- Genital warts in both men and women.
- Anal, penile, and oral cancer in men.
What HPV vaccines are available in Singapore?
In general, there are three distinct types of HPV vaccines in Singapore. Each vaccine offers protection against different HPV strains. Below is a brief description of the available vaccines:
|Cervarix||Gardasil 4||Gardasil 9|
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
HPV vaccination is recommended particularly for females and young individuals. This is because of the well-documented association between HPV and cervical cancer.
However, men should get the HPV vaccination too – HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can affect anybody regardless of gender.
For best effects, you should get vaccinated as early as possible – ideally before you get exposed to any type of HPV. This is because the HPV vaccine does not treat or cure any existing HPV infections.
The vaccine only offers protection against HPV subtypes that you are yet to contract. If you are sexually active, it is well worth getting vaccinated for HPV to help protect yourself as well as your partners. Getting vaccinated may still provide you protection against the other types of HPV that you may have not been exposed to.
Who is not eligible for the HPV vaccine?
You may not be the best candidate for the HPV vaccine if you are:
- Allergic or sensitive to any of the components of the vaccine
- Suffering from a severe infectious illness
What are the potential side effects of the vaccine?
Like any other type of vaccination, this particular vaccine may cause some mild side effects, ranging from fatigue, headache, fever, and nausea to dizziness and pain or swelling at the site of vaccination.
Even though cervical cancer can affect virtually any woman, there exists a few risk factors that may enhance your risk of developing cervical cancer, including having a compromised immune system, being sexually active at a relatively young age, having many sexual partners, smoking, and taking oral contraceptives for more than 5 years. The most common cervical cancer symptoms are bleeding after intercourse, vaginal bleeding as well as discharge.
Yes, there are medical exams available in Singapore to screen for possible signs of HPV-triggered cancers in both men and women; anal and cervical cancers. There are also medical exams that detect high-risk HPV strains in your body. Depending on your screening results, your doctor may discuss with you the available treatment options to help thwart the development of cancer.
You can access the vaccination at any polyclinic, approved healthcare, or GP clinic in Singapore. It is highly advisable that you choose a vaccine based on your preference as well as its effectiveness.
As already explained, you should consider being vaccinated against HPV whether you are sexually active or not. Being active sexually doesn’t imply you have been exposed to every single strain of HPV! Being vaccinated even after being sexually active may help protect you from other types of HPV that you may have not been previously exposed to.