HPV — The Silent Virus

Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with this virus, and another 6.2 million people become newly infected each year. At least 50% of sexually active men and women acquire this infection at some point in their lives. It is known as the most common-sexually transmitted disease in the world.

What is this virus one might ask? Genital Human Papillomavirus, commonly known as "HPV".

Genital HPV infection is a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomavirus is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted, and can infect the genital areas of both men and women. A recent estimate suggests that 80% of women will have acquired genital HPV infection by age 50 and an estimated 9.2 million sexually-active youth between the ages of 15-24 years of age are currently infected with genital HPV.

Some of these numbers are a little scary. It has been shown that women of young age, increased number of male sex partners, early age of first sexual intercourse, and immune status have had an effect on increased risk factors for HPV among women. But wait, genital HPV is not something that only affects females. Men are equally at risk of contracting it. Some of the risk factors in men include greater lifetime number of sex partners, greater number of recent sex partners and being uncircumcised.

In most cases, genital HPV infection has no clinical manifestations. The most common signs and symptoms are genital warts that are visible and cervical cell abnormalities that are detected by a pap smear test. Visible genital warts appear only during active infection. But it is possible to spread the virus even if the warts are not visible to the naked eye.

The good news, however, is that one's immune system can normally fight off this infection. It is shown that 70% of new infections clear within 1 year and 90% of new infections clear within 2 years. It is the persistent infection not cleared by the immune system that we need to worry about!

Some ways people can prevent themselves from acquiring STDs are by abstaining from having sex with anyone who has symptoms or who may have been exposed to an STD, not having more than one sex partner at a time, and by using condoms during sexual intercourse. Condoms may help reduce the risk of spreading genital warts, but they do not protect the entire genital area against skin-to-skin contact. Genital warts are very contagious and can be transmitted during oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected partner. About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop warts, usually within 3 months of contact.

Women with genital warts need to be examined for possible HPV infection of the cervix. Your health care provider can diagnose HPV infection based on results from an abnormal pap smear, a primary cancer-screening tool for cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes of the cervix. The best way to prevent getting an HPV infection is to avoid direct contact with the virus, which is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine called Gardasil. Gardasil is highly effective in preventing persistent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which are two "high-risk" HPV's that cause most (70 percent) of cervical cancers, and types 6 and 11, which cause virtually all (90 percent) of genital warts. The vaccine is given in a three-shot series over 6 months. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26 be vaccinated, though girls as young as 9 may benefit. Females not yet sexually active receive the most benefit from the vaccination. The vaccine does not appear to protect against HPV types that females are infected with at the time of vaccination. However, females already infected with one or more HPV type before vaccination would be protected against disease caused by the other HPV types covered by the vaccine. Since the current vaccine does not protect women against all the HPV types that cause cervical cancer, women need to continue pap smear testing, even after receiving the vaccine.

HPV is a serious infection and although the widespread use of pap testing has reduced the incidence and lethality of cervical cancer in developed countries, the disease still kills several hundred thousand women per year worldwide. Protect yourself from HPV infection by getting vaccinated today! Vaccinations are available at the Armstrong Health Clinic.

By Pareen Desai