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While most HPV strains are harmless and can be naturally cleared by the body, certain strains can lead to cancer; these are known as high-risk HPV strains. Here’s what you need to know about HPV infections, including its risk factors and treatment options.

Who is at Risk of Developing Cervical Cancer?

People with weakened immune systems, such as those who are living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), who have Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) or who are on immune-system-suppressing drugs, are at higher risk of having a persistent HPV infection. This is because they are unable to fight off any infections effectively. Persistent infections of high-risk HPV strains can lead to cervical cancer.  

How Does HPV Infection Occur?

HPV is transmitted through close skin contact such as sexual activity, by sharing contaminated sex toys and (rarely) from an infected mother to baby during delivery. HPV cannot be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces such as toilet seats and door knobs, unless you happen to have an open wound. 

Some signs and symptoms of HPV infection include the presence of genital warts and abnormality on the cervix detected during a cervical screening. Generally, high-risk HPV infection does not manifest any symptoms. 

Screening for High-risk HPV Strains

About 90 percent of HPV infections clear up on their own, without the need for medical treatment. However, persistent infection with high-risk HPV is associated with cervical cancer in women. 

To protect yourself against HPV-related cancer, go for regular cervical cancer screening to test for the presence of high-risk HPV strains. According to local screening guidelines, any woman who has ever had sex should go for cervical cancer screening. Women between 25 years old and 29 years old should undergo a Pap test once every three years; younger women are able to fight off HPV infections more easily, so HPV DNA tests may lead to unnecessary health scares for this group. Women aged 30 to 69 should undergo HPV DNA primary testing once every five years. 

Who Should Be Vaccinated Against HPV?

There are currently three vaccines approved for use in Singapore — Gardasil 4, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix. The vaccines are suitable for females aged nine to 26. Depending on age, either two or three dosages are administered. The vaccination is most effective if it is given before the girl’s first sexual exposure.

Be sure to chat with your doctor before receiving a vaccination. The vaccines may not be suitable for people with certain medical conditions such as blood disorders (when the blood is not able to clot properly) and sensitivity to yeast.