High-risk HPV less common than thought

20th August 2018

By Imogen Robinson

Fewer people are infected with high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) than previously thought, new research has shown.

The same study also showed that smoking and sexual behaviour were shown to influence chances of oral HPV infection, which can lead to throat cancer.

The research, conducted by the University of Sheffield and published in the British Medical Journal Open, coincides with the announcement of a new HPV vaccine programme to be rolled out for boys, reducing the risk of high risk HPV related cancers.

As it stands, rates of throat cancers are on the rise globally, with an increase in the rate of oral HPV infection being blamed.

The study looked at 700 men and women in Sheffield and is the largest of its kind to be carried out in England.


HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, and more than 40 types can be easily spread through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Researchers tested for high-risk HPV infection, while also asking participants questions relating to their sexual history and tobacco use.

Results showed that a total of 2.2% of people were infected with an oral high risk HPV infection, with 0.7% testing positive for HPV16 or HPV18, the types responsible for most HPV-related cancers.

Other studies show large variations in the global prevalence of high risk oral HPV, but this study showed lower rates compared to previous Scottish and US studies, which both found 3.7% of individuals tested positive for high-risk strains of oral HPV.

Former smokers were significantly more likely to test positive for high risk HPV compared with people who had never smoked, and the study also found that those with a higher number of sexual or oral sexual partners were more likely to test positive.

Dr Vanessa Hearnden from the University of Sheffield said: “Previous studies have been US-focused or smaller UK studies in London or Scotland.

“This is the first study in the North of England and found lower rates of oral high-risk human papillomavirus infection.

“We fully support the newly announced HPV vaccination programme for boys which will reduce the risk of HPV related cancers including throat cancer in men and will also provide further prevention of cervical cancers through herd immunity.”


“We fully support the newly announced HPV vaccination programme for boys which will reduce the risk of HPV related cancers including throat cancer in men and will also provide further prevention of cervical cancers through herd immunity.”

However, she added that the majority of people who tested positive for high risk strains of HPV were actually positive for strains not covered by the current vaccine.

This shows the need to develop new vaccines that protect against more types of HPV, as well as the need to educate individuals on the risks of their lifestyle choices such as smoking.

Dr Craig Murdoc, also of the University of Sheffield, said: “Many people associate the HPV virus with cervical cancer but there is less recognition of the fact that HPV causes oropharyngeal (throat) cancer and, unfortunately, the prevalence of this cancer has increased dramatically in the past few years.”

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, and more than 40 types can be easily spread through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Other HPV types are responsible for non-genital warts, which are not sexually transmitted.

Sexually transmitted strains of HPV generally fall into two categories, with low risk types causing genital warts, and the less common disease recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.

High risk HPVs cause cancer, and about a dozen of these have been identified, including HPV types 16 and 18.

Most high-risk HPV infections occur with no symptoms and go away of their own accord within one to two years, without causing cancer.

Some infections can persist for many years however, which can lead to cell changes that may progress to cancer if left untreated.

Currently, there are two HPV vaccination programmes in England, one for girls and one for men who have sex with men.

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Imogen Robinson

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

Imogen joined The Femedic after working as a news reporter. Becoming frustrated with the neverending clickbait, she jumped at the chance to work for a site whose ethos revolves around honesty and empathy. From reading articles by doctors to researching her own, and discussing health with a huge variety of women, she is fascinated by just how little we are told about our own bodies and women-specific health issues, and is excited to be working on a site which will dispel myths and taboos, and hopefully help a lot of women.