Connecting the Dots: How HPV Causes Cancer

Oct 27, 2023 5 Minute Read

How does a virus like HPV (Human Papillomavirus) develop into a life-threatening disease like cancer? Let’s explore the link between these two conditions.

From the list of potential viral infections that you could contract, HPV, or Human
Papillomavirus is the most commonly transmitted infection of the reproductive tract. 
But just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it's harmless. As you may have heard before, HPV and certain cancers go hand-in-hand. While most HPV
infections clear on their own, in some cases, the virus lurks on, staying hidden in the body for years. 
In these cases, HPV can cause harmful cellular changes and lead to the development of certain cancers. These include cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer. Let’s explore the connection between different HPV types and cancer, and understand how this seemingly innocuous virus can have serious health implications.

Understanding HPV?


Before delving into how HPV causes cancer, let's start with the basics. HPV is a group of viruses with over 200 known types. 3 These viruses can infect various parts of the body, including the skin and mucous membranes such as the genitals. It is primarily spread through sexual contact.


Most HPV infections go unnoticed and clear on their own within a couple of years. However, certain high-risk types of HPV can persist and lead to the development of certain HPV-related cancers.

What cancers does HPV cause?


High-risk HPV is strongly associated with the development of genital and anal cancers. High-risk HPV types, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18, are the main culprits behind this. In cases where a high-risk HPV infection persists for many years, it can lead to cell changes. If untreated, these cell changes may get worse over time and become precancerous, and then cancerous.


Here are some examples of cancers caused by HPV:

1. Cervical cancer: Virtually all cases of cervical cancers worldwide are caused by HPV. This cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lowermost part of the uterus.

2. Vulvar cancer: Vulvar cancer can also be attributed majorly to HPV, with around 70% of vulvar cancers being caused by the virus.


3. Vaginal cancer: Another rare form of cancer, around 75% of vaginal cancers are caused by HPV.


4. Anal cancer: More than 90% of anal cancer cases are attributed to HPV. This cancer affects both genders disproportionately, women are more likely to suffer from anal cancer than men.

How does HPV-related cancer progress?


While not all HPV infections cause cancer, infection with certain high-risk types of HPV, such as type 16 and 18, can lead to certain cancers. The process by which this cancer develops is complex and involves several key steps:

1. Viral entry: The process begins when you come into contact with a cancer-causing HPV type. The virus enters the body through mucous membranes or skin. Once inside, it infects the basal cells of the epithelium (the outermost layer of skin or mucous membranes).


2. Viral replication: Once high-risk HPV infects cells, it begins to interfere with the way these cells communicate with one another, causing infected cells to multiply more rapidly than normal.


3. Cellular changes: Over time, if the virus is not brought into control by the body’s natural immune system, the infected cells continue to grow, eventually forming an area of precancerous cells.


4. Cancer formation: If not detected and treated in time, these precancerous cells eventually become cancerous. At this stage, they can invade nearby tissues and potentially spread to other parts of the body.

Prevention and Vaccination


The interconnectedness between HPV and cervical cancer is well documented, and may have serious implications for public health. The good news is that HPV infection can be prevented by taking certain measures, one of which is HPV vaccination. 


Research has demonstrated that HPV vaccination has an efficacy of up to 98% in helping prevent certain HPV-related cancers caused by vaccine HPV types. It should typically be administered in adolescence, starting from the age of 9.


HPV's connection to cancer underscores the importance of prevention and early detection. HPV vaccination, regular screenings and safe sexual practices are essential tools in helping reduce the risk of HPV-related cancers. By understanding how HPV causes cancer, we can take proactive steps to help protect our health and the health of future generations.


Disclaimer: HPV - Human Papillomavirus. This information is intended for awareness purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

*Image for representation purpose only


IN-GSL-00743 | 12/1/2024 - 10/11/2025