Human Papilloma Virus(HPV) Infections
Many are surprised to find out how common HPV infections are. In fact, more than 75% of the population will have been infected by the HPV at some time in their life, mostly during their late teens and early 20’s.
There are over 100 types of HPV and each has its own identifying number, for example HPV-6 and HPV-18. In most cases, HPV infection goes away on its own without any health problems. However, when it does not go away, there can be some potentially serious consequences. Some HPV types cause skin warts, while other types cause genital warts. More recently, scientific research has discovered that certain HPV types can lead to cancer of the cervix, the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth and throat. The types that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancers. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets infected. It is estimated that HPV infections account for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer in women. Also, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, HPV infection is associated with about 80–90% of anal cancers, 40% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, 40–50% of penile cancers and 25–35% of mouth and throat cancers.
Preventing HPV infection
HPV can be transmitted through vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact of the genitals. Because of the association between this virus and cancer, it is logical to assume that if we can prevent the infection in the first place, we can prevent the cancers these viruses cause. Practicing safe sex by using condoms can lower the chances of getting HPV. However, it is important to know that this virus can infect areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms may not be fully protective.
The good news is the recent arrival of the HPV vaccine which is safe and effective. When given as recommended, this vaccine can prevent HPV related diseases including cancers. There are several HPV vaccines currently available that generally protect against most of the types known to cause cancer. Depending on which vaccine is used, 2 to 3 doses are necessary for females and the recommended age ranges vary between 9-26 years old. One currently available vaccine is now approved for boys as well.
At this point we are not sure how long the protection will last, but with time, studies will be able to clarify the need, if any, for booster shots in the future. It is important to note that one cannot become infected with HPV from the vaccine and the vaccine does not contain any antibiotics or preservatives, including mercury. Because the vaccines do not protect against all cases of cervical cancer, women who have been vaccinated still need to have regular Pap smears that screen for cervical cancer.
As the availability and provision of vaccines varies from country to country, please speak to your doctor or local public health office for more information about the HPV vaccine.