Did you know there’s a sexually transmitted infection (STI) nearly all sexually active men and women will contract at some point in their lives?
There’s no need to panic, though, as the virus mostly goes away by itself and leaves us none the worse for wear – unless our immune system isn’t up to scratch, in which case it could lead to serious conditions.
Fortunately this can be prevented by an easily available and highly effective vaccine.
The STI in question is called human papillomavirus and is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world and can in some cases even be transmitted without sexual contact.
Facts about HPV
1. There are more than 150 related human papillomaviruses and each one has a number. The word “papilloma” means wart and refers to the fact that some HPV viruses cause warts.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and according to MNT around 79 million Americans are infected with HPV at one time. It is so common that most sexually active people in the world will have some kind of HPV at some stage during their lives.
2. In most cases HPV 'self-resolves' which means that the body’s immune system is strong enough to conquer the virus.
3. HPV can lead to (mainly genital) warts and some kinds of cancer – however it is mostly asymptomatic (without symptoms). HPV 6 and 11 cause warts and HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58 are associated with cancer.
Genital warts are easy to diagnose and can be small or large, flat or raised or shaped like a cauliflower.
HPV is mainly associated with cervical cancer, but can also cause cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, or oral (mouth) cavity. According to CDC more than 11 000 American women get cervical cancer each year.
Cervical cancer develops at the entrance to the womb from the vagina. The most common symptom is unusual vaginal bleeding. Any bleeding should be investigated by a GP who will refer you to a specialist if necessary.
A "Pap smear/test" is a screening procedure for cervical cancer which tests for cancerous or precancerous cells on the cervix. (A sample from the cervix is checked under a microscope for abnormalities.)
4. The virus itself cannot be treated, only the problems caused by the virus:
- Genital warts can be treated or left alone, in which case they may spontaneously disappear, grow or multiply.
- Cervical cancer can also be treated. As mentioned above, it can be identified by means of a Pap test before it develops – and prevention is always better than cure.
- Other cancers related to HPV are also treatable – the earlier the better.
5. HPV is spread by vaginal, oral or anal sex with someone who has the virus, even if that person has no symptoms. HPV is not spread through the exchange of body fluids, but by means of skin-to-skin contact. It is difficult to pinpoint when you became infected as symptoms may only appear years later.
HPV can even be transmitted without sexual contact as in the case of mother-to-child transmission during birth.
6. HPV and associated health problems can be avoided by:
- Using latex condoms. HPV can however infect areas that aren’t covered by a condom.
- Remaining celibate (the most effective method)
- Having a mutually monogamous relationship
- Getting an HPV vaccine. These vaccinations are safe and effective and can protect both men and women against the diseases caused by HPV. HPV vaccines involve three shots given over a period of six months.
- Getting screened for cervical cancer. Women in the age group 21 to 65 years should undergo routine screening.
CDC: Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
American Sexual Health Association: HPV – Fast Facts. http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/hpv/fast-facts/
Cancer Research UK: HPV: the whole story, warts and all. http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2014/09/16/hpv-the-whole-story-warts-and-all/
NHS Choices: Cervical Cancer.http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Cancer-of-the-cervix/Pages/Introduction.aspx
CDC:HPV Vaccine Information For Young Women. http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-vaccine-young-women.htm