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Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and HIV/AIDS

June 29, 2015

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Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and HIV/AIDS

Table of Contents

What Is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a large group of viruses. Certain types of HPV can cause warts on the hands, feet, mouth, or throat. About 30 to 40 types can cause infections in the genital area (the vulva, vagina, penis, buttocks, scrotum, and anus).

Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 290 million women were infected with HPV in 2013. HPV infection is responsible for almost half a million cases of cervical cancer each year, over 90 percent of which occur in the developing world.


Genital HPV types are often grouped as "low risk" or "high risk." Low-risk types can cause genital warts. High-risk types can cause cervical cancer or cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer. However, if you have warts, you may have also been exposed to the types of HPV that can cause cancer.

Genital HPV is spread easily through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the infection. Insertive or penetrative sex is not required for HPV to be spread between sexual partners. Condoms and other latex barriers do not totally prevent transmission. Most people with HPV do not know they have it because they do not develop symptoms, yet they can still pass it on to someone else.

Although most sexually active women and men will be infected with HPV at some time, nine times out of ten, the body's immune system clears HPV infection naturally (gets rid of the infection without treatment) within two years. Because HIV weakens the immune system, people living with HIV (HIV+ people) are more likely to be infected with HPV than HIV-negative people. One study found HPV in more than three out of four women living with HIV. HIV+ women with HPV are also more likely to have:

  • Difficulty clearing the infection naturally
  • HPV infections that were once under control and come back again
  • HPV that responds poorly to standard treatment; multiple therapies using different methods may be needed
  • Several types or strains of HPV at once
  • Infection with the "high risk" HPV types that can cause cancer
  • Higher risk of developing cervical and anal cancer when infected with the "high risk" types

If you have sex, it is important to be checked regularly by your health care provider for signs of HPV such as genital warts or cervical and anal cancer (see Routine Screenings below).

Prevention of HPV


There are currently three HPV vaccines: Gardasil (made by Merck; also known as Silgard), Gardasil-9 (also made by Merck), and Cervarix (made by GlaxoSmithKline). All three have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Gardasil-9 is still awaiting approval in the UK and Canada. In the US, Gardasil products are approved for females and males ages 9 to 26, while Cervarix is approved for females ages 10 to 25. There are now demonstration projects that are bringing HPV vaccines to girls and women in low-income countries as well.

The vaccines protect against types of HPV that cause the majority of cervical cancers and genital warts. Recent studies have shown that these vaccines can also provide protection against HPV-related vaginal cancers, vulvar cancers, and anal cancer in women. The vaccines do not protect against less common HPV types. Therefore, health care providers still recommend regular Pap tests to look for signs of cancer.

It is best if young people get all doses of the vaccine before their first sexual contact. This helps them develop an immune response before they are exposed to HPV. People who are infected with some types of HPV may still benefit from the vaccine's effects against other types of HPV. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV vaccines for all girls and young women ages 11 through 26 and all boys and young men ages 11 through 21 (even if they have already become sexually active).

In Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends Gardasil vaccination for females and males ages nine through 26, or vaccination with Cervarix for girls and young women ages nine through 26. In the UK, vaccination with Gardasil is offered to girls ages 12 and 13 through the National Health Service.

Pregnant women should not receive the vaccine, although it is safe to get the vaccine while breastfeeding. Speak to your health care provider about the HPV vaccine to see if it is right for you. In the US, there are payment assistance programs for people who cannot afford the HPV vaccines; see the resource section of this article for contact information.

Based on recent study data showing that HPV vaccines are very good at getting the body to produce a strong immune response, there is a move toward reducing the number of doses from three to two. Girls and boys ages nine to 13 have a stronger response to the vaccine than older adolescents. Therefore, the European Medicines Agency recently approved that Cervarix be offered as a two-dose vaccination for nine to 14-year-old girls and boys and that Gardasil be offered as two-dose vaccination for nine to 13-year-old girls and boys. Neither of these two-dose schedules has been approved in the US.

Future HPV vaccine development also includes the possibility of adding HPV vaccine to another existing vaccine to reduce the total number of injections (e.g., combining HPV and measles in one shot).

Routine Screenings

Regular pelvic and anal exams and cervical screening tests are very important. While they cannot prevent HPV-related problems, they can help catch warts and dysplasia (abnormal or pre-cancerous cells) before they get worse and cause greater problems.

Studies have shown that, although women living with HIV are at an increased risk for cervical cancer, nearly one in four women living with HIV in the US did not get their recommended yearly cervical screening tests. It is very important that women living with HIV get yearly routine cervical screening testing and follow up as needed to identify problems before cancer develops. Follow up involves seeing a gynecologist so that the cells of the cervix can be looked at closely with a microscope to look for abnormal cells that might be pre-cancerous. Prevention is always better -- healthier, less painful, and less costly -- than treatment.


Even though condoms do not fully protect against HPV, when used correctly they can help reduce the chances that HPV will be spread.

Not Smoking

Smoking has been shown to increase the chance of developing several types of cancer including cervical and anal cancers. If you smoke, it is a good idea to try and quit. Talk with your health care provider about stopping smoking -- there are many tools to help you quit. You can also find lots of information and support online (

Genital Warts

Certain types of HPV can cause warts on the vulva (including the labia, or 'lips'), in or around the vagina or anus, or on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. Warts can appear anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after you are exposed to HPV. They can even appear years after exposure.


  • Flesh-colored, pinkish, or white warts that appear as small bumps or groups of bumps. They can be raised or flat, different sizes, and are sometimes shaped like cauliflower.


  • Health care providers can usually identify genital warts by looking at them
  • Sometimes a biopsy is done (a sample of the suspected wart is cut off and examined under a microscope)
  • Some health care providers may use a vinegar solution to help identify flat warts with the naked eye; however, this test may sometimes wrongly identify normal skin as a wart


There is no cure for HPV, but genital warts can be treated by removing the wart.

  • The following treatments must be done in a health care provider's office:

    • TCA (trichloracetic acid): A chemical is applied to the surface of the wart
    • Cryotherapy: Freezing off the wart with liquid nitrogen
    • Electrocautery: Burning off the wart with an electrical current
    • Laser therapy: Using an intense light to destroy the wart
    • Excision: Cutting out the wart
  • Some treatments can be done at home with prescription creams: Aldara or Beselna (imiquimod), Condylox (podofilox or podophyllotoxin), and Veregen (sinecatechins, or green tea extracts). Because Aldara and Beselna act on the immune system, it is important to talk with your health care provider about the best prescription wart treatment for you if you are living with HIV.
  • Do not use over-the-counter wart removal products to treat genital warts
  • Some wart treatments should not be used by pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding
  • Warts can reappear after successful treatment

If left untreated, genital warts may go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. Some people decide not to have treatment right away to see if the warts will go away on their own. When considering treatment options, you and your health care provider may take into account the size, location and number of warts, changes in the warts, your preference, and the side effects of treatment.

Many women living with HIV, especially those with low CD4 cell counts, may not be able to get rid of genital warts using standard treatments. Several different treatments may be needed. For women living with HIV, one of the best ways to strengthen the immune system and help get rid of genital warts is to take HIV drugs. If you are already taking HIV drugs, it is important that you take them exactly as directed so that they can increase your CD4 count and fight off HPV.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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