How HPV causes Cervical Cancer

Cancer is the result of the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. Most of the cells in our body have a set lifespan; when they die, new cells are produced to replace them. Abnormal cells can have two problems:

  • They do not die
  • They continue dividing

HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus, a virus that can infect many parts of the body. ​​​There are more than 100 different sub-types of HPV, grouped into:

  1. high-risk types (may cause cancer) and
  2. low risk types (non-cancer causing). About 30 - 40 HPV sub-types can infect the genital area; some can cause genital warts in both men and women, but only 14 are associated with cervical cancer in women. These fourteen strains are known as the high-risk HPV.​

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. If you become infected with one of the high-risk strains of HPV, and your immune system does not deal with it, the infection can lead to the growth of pre-cancerous cells in your cervix. This is known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). CIN is not cancer but, if left untreated, it can develop into cancer in some women. This can take up to 10 years.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer.

Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection don't have any symptoms, so many women won't realise they have the infection. However, it's important to be aware that these infections are relatively common and most women who have them don't develop cervical cancer. Using condoms during sex offers some protection against HPV, but it can't always prevent infection, because the virus is also spread through skin-to-skin contact of the wider genital area.

However, there are some risk factors which are known to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. These risk factors include:

  • HPV (human papillomavirus): a sexually transmitted virus. There are over 100 different types of HPVs, at least 13 of which can cause cervical cancer.
  • Many sexual partners or becoming sexually active early: Cervical cancer-causing HPV types are nearly always transmitted as a result of sexual contact with an infected individual. Women who have had many sexual partners generally have a higher risk of becoming infected with HPV, which raises their risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Smoking: increases the risk of developing many cancers, including cervical cancer.
  • Weakened immune system: such as those with HIV/AIDS, or transplant recipients taking immunosuppressive medications.
  • Long-term mental stress: Women who experience high levels of stress over a sustained period may be less able to fight off HPV.
  • Giving birth at a very young age: Women who gave birth before the age of 17 are significantly more likely to develop cervical cancer compared with women who had their first baby when they were aged 25 or over.
  • Several pregnancies: Women who have had at least three children in separate pregnancies are more likely to develop cervical cancer compared with women who never had children.
  • Contraceptive pill: Long-term use of some common contraceptive pills slightly raises a woman's risk.
  • Other sexually transmitted diseases (STD): Women who become infected with chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

Socio-economic status: Studies in several countries have revealed that women in deprived areas have significantly higher rates of cervical cancer.

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