The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease. Currently, 79 million Americans are infected. Studies using blood tests have concluded that more than 80 percent of adults have been infected at some point in their lives—most unknowingly.*
There are more than 100 types of HPV
Although some types don’t seem to cause any problems at all, others can cause genital warts and cancers. Dependent on an individual’s sexual activity, cancers from HPV include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and throat.
HPV is spread from skin-to-skin contact
Commonly, HPV is transmitted by an individual who is infected by the virus—without symptoms. Men can carry high-risk, cancer-causing HPV often without any signs or consequences for themselves and unknowingly pass it to their partners. Using a condom is not a guaranteed preventive measure for spreading the disease, as it does not eliminate all skin contact of the genital area between partners.
It can be dormant for years before any symptoms appear
Since HPV is a virus, once it is present, it’s always there. Most women’s immune systems will fight and suppress it. If it is dormant and not actively replicating, it does not cause problems. However, it could reactivate in the future.
Pap smears are recommended to detect and remove precancerous cells
After age 30, a woman’s pap smear is tested for high-risk, cancer-causing HPV. It is not routine to test for it on pap smears in women under 30 because so many test positive, and most of those young women, their natural immune system will fight it off without any consequences.
Routine pap smears detect precancerous cells of the cervix so we can intervene and remove them years before they become cancer.
Although pap smears are very effective in reducing cervical cancers, HPV still causes significant health concerns and cost in terms of time, worry and money. I have spent countless hours treating and counseling my patients about warts and abnormal pap smears, and have performed innumerable cervical biopsies as follow-up on abnormal pap smears.
Vaccinate preteens before sexual activity begins
The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, has been shown to protect men and women from health issues caused by HPV. It is important to vaccinate young men, too, as they carry the virus and pass it to partners. Since there is no treatment to clear HPV once it is contracted, a vaccine given before any type of sexual activity has happened is the best way to prevent HPV-related problems. As a physician and mom, I support the CDC’s recommendation to vaccinate preteens, around ages 11-12. At these ages, two doses will be given six months apart.
With more than 100 types of HPV, not all strains are covered in the vaccine. The vaccine protects against nine subtypes that cause more than 70 percent of cervical cancer and more than 90 percent of genital warts. Studies show that, in countries where a majority of the youth have been vaccinated, there has been a parallel decline in that group’s HPV-related diagnoses. That gives me hope that, during my career, visits for the treatment of genital warts and abnormal pap smears will become a rarity.