Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a common virus that affects both men and women.

It is highly contagious and is passed from person to person through sexual contact. Over 80% of people have had or will have some type of HPV at some time in their lives.

In most people HPV is harmless, but in some cases the virus can stay in the body for years and cause some cancers. HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer in women. In men, HPV can be related to anal cancer, and some cancers of the penis, head and neck.

The HPV vaccine causes the formation of antibodies to produce immunity and therefore protects the body from HPV. The HPV vaccine currently available in Australia is called Gardasil.

Gardasil prevents infection with HPV types 16, 18, 6 and 11. HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for most cervical cancers and HPV 6 and 11 are responsible for ninety percent of genital warts.

Having the vaccine will protect those who have never been exposed to these types of HPV and is most effective when given before a person becomes sexually active.

The vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cancer so it is still important for women to have regular Pap smears even if they have been vaccinated.

The vaccine is most effective if given to girls and boys before they become sexually activity and, therefore possibly exposed to HPV. Under the National Immunisation Program, Gardasil is available free through a school-based program for boys and girls aged 12 to 13 years. It is also available as a catch-up for 14 to 15 year old boys.

For all others, the vaccine costs about $460. This does not include the cost of the visit to the GP who must prescribe the vaccine.

For more information, see the Australian government's HPV School Vaccination Program site and the Cancer Council's HPV vaccine fact sheet.