Get vaccinated to prevent genital warts

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4 July 2023

Did you know the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can help protect all genders against some genital warts – not just the risk of cancer?

Genital warts are a sexually transmissible infection (STI) caused by HPV infection – and it’s one of only a few STIs you can get vaccinated against. Others include Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, both which are sexually transmissible.

Genital warts are skin-coloured or white bumps that show up on your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum or anus, and occasionally in the mouth or throat. They may look like small pieces of cauliflower. HPV can be passed on through sexual contact, including intimate skin-to-skin contact.

You can have one or many warts of various sizes – and they can sometimes be itchy. But, even if no warts are visible, it is still possible to pass on HPV.

Treatment for genital warts only treats the symptoms and is not a cure. Typically, genital warts are frozen off (cryotherapy) – just like sunspots or minor skin cancers – or you need to treat with an ointment or cream. In serious cases, genital warts may need to be removed in hospital.

Genital warts can reoccur after treatment until the HPV infection clears the body.

The good news is that since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2007, there has been a significant decrease in genital warts in Australia.

Based on data by the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute collected from sexual health clinics, it is estimated for Australian-born people that, since 2007, the reduction in genital wart diagnoses for those under 21 years of age has been more than 90 per cent, and at least 75 per cent for those aged 21 to 29 years.

Among people aged over 30 years, genital wart diagnoses have declined more gradually, however there has been a reduction of more than 60 per cent for females and males.

While the HPV vaccine protects against most types of genital warts, people are also encouraged to use condoms and dental dams to protect against STIs.

Senior Medical Officer Dr Olivia Williams said HPV is a common virus that can affect people of all genders and ages.

“In addition to genital warts, HPV infection can sometimes cause cell changes that lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat,” Dr Williams said.

“While many people associate the HPV vaccine as something that only people with a cervix need to have – it’s so important for everyone to get vaccinated to prevent cancers that may affect them. HPV infection can cause penile, anal, mouth and throat cancer.

“The HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV that are the most common causes of cervical cancer and genital warts in Australia.”

The HPV vaccine is primarily delivered through the year 7 School Immunisation Program and is available free for everyone.

Young people aged up to and including 25 years are eligible for a free HPV vaccine via catch-up school immunisation clinics, or by a GP or other immunisation provider. A consultation fee may be charged by providers outside of the School Immunisation Program.

The benefits of HPV vaccination are greatest when it is given in early adolescence and before exposure to the virus.

HPV vaccination is not routinely recommended for people 26 years and older because HPV infection generally occurs soon after sexual activity commences. People should seek advice from their GP or other immunisation provider.

For more information on the School Immunisation Program, visit the Queensland Government website.