About 79 million Americans are currently infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). About 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life, assuming they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
Your concierge family physicians at MD 2.0 in Jupiter, Florida, want to take advantage of the fact that Sunday, March 4, is HPV Awareness Day to offer some facts and refute some fallacies about this common infection, because HPV can cause not only genital warts but some deadly cancers. The average American, however, knows very little about HPV.
There are almost 200 types of HPV viruses, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Of those, 40 are easily spread through direct sexual contact from the skin and mucous membranes of infected people to the skin and mucous membranes of their partners.
Of the sexually transmitted HPV types, low-risk HPVs do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts; high-risk HPVs can cause cancer. Two of these, HPV types 16 and 18, are responsible for most of the HPV-caused cancers. High-risk HPV types cause approximately 5 percent of all the cancers worldwide.
As common as HPV is, many people don’t even know they have it, because often there are no symptoms and the immune system can clear up the infection on its own over the course of a few years. Meanwhile, though, it is still shedding the virus, and therefore able to infect sexual partners. While women often learn they have an HPV infection after receiving a Pap test, at this time there is no test for men, and no medical cure for the virus once it’s in the body.
Oral, anal, and vaginal sex are the only known forms of transmission, and men contract it nearly as often as do women. And another bit of bad news: Condoms don’t fully protect against HPV infection, because any type of contact with surrounding skin will transmit the virus.
If the HPV virus is so common, and often clears up on its own, why worry about it? Because it can kill. Every year, according to the CDC, 12,000 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,000 of those will die. HPV causes about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. The most common cancer in men related to the HPV virus is oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, a head and neck cancer that has soared in incidence in recent years. Approximately 13,000 infections each year are liked to cancer at the back of the throat.
“The incidence of this cancer has increased 300 percent in the last 20 years,” Ashish Deshmukh told CBS News recently.
He is a research assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions.
“We’ve got to vaccinate young boys [as well as girls], because vaccine has the potential to decrease cancer risk.”
So what can you do to protect yourself? Short of abstaining from sex completely, the fewer partners you have, the less chance you have of contracting the virus.
But the best protection is to receive the vaccine before ever beginning sexual activity. Once a person has been exposed to the virus, it’s too late. The CDC recommends routine HPV vaccines for girls and boys at the age of 9, with two inoculations at least six months apart.
If you have warts of any kind, please see us for an evaluation and treatment. And be sure to consult us if you have any questions about this common infection.