Whether you’ve heard of it or not, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is actually very common. Some of us have seen the commercials on television, or occasionally hear something in the doctor’s office — but what is this “very common” virus?
HPV is sexually transmitted, which means it is passed through genital contact. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, at least 50 percent of people who have had sexual intercourse, will also have had HPV at some point. Some doctors believe it is believe it is as common as the cold virus. According the American Cancer Society (ACS), more than six million people will contract HPV per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that in 2000, approximately 9.2 million people between the ages of 15 to 24 had genital HPV. And currently more than 20 million people have it.
This isn’t a new virus; it’s just that many of us didn’t know it existed. There are often no signs and in many cases, HPV goes away on its own without causing any severe health problems. “Most times women, or men, don’t know they have this, because there are no symptoms; the body can often clear the virus on its own,” said Karie McMurray, M.D., who practices at Conejo Women’s Medical Center in California.
Joseph Mercola, D.O., who practices at The Optimal Wellness Center in Illinois, concurs and said, “The immune systems of many women are strong enough to clear up these infections on their own.”
But when it doesn’t go away is when the trouble begins. There are strains of HPV that may cause genital warts and/or cervical cancer, among other health problems.
Women should get regular a Pap test, which looks for cell changes and infection. “If you have a normal Pap smear, chances are you don’t have the virus,” McMurray said. The virus can be treated if caught early.
ACS defines viruses as very small organisms that enter a living cell, which thus become the host cell and they “hijack” the cell’s “machinery” to make more viruses. The HPVs are a group of more than 100 related viruses. Each virus is given a number for identification. Types 16 and 18 cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers; types 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Men and women are both able to have the HPV virus; but it is harder to diagnose in men. For men, the only true symptom is genital warts. But not all genital warts mean the virus strain of HPV has been contracted. There are less virulent strains, which is why testing is crucial to determine the best source of treatment.
One way to prevent against HPV, if sexually active, is condom protection. A New England Journal of Medicine study found the use of condoms reduces the incidence of HPV by 70 percent. Another prevention is to limit your number of partners and avoiding being with someone who has a number of partners. There is also a new vaccine, Gardasil, which is said to protect against HPV 16 and 18. Recommended for girls as young as nine, it is primarily targeted to single women who begin new relationships. The controversial vaccine has received both heavy support and opposition.
McMurray is a proponent of the vaccine: “The vaccine fights against the common strains of cervical cancer, which is quite significant.”
Mercola is not, and writes on his medical Web site: “Cancer prevention is not as simplistic as taking a vaccination … cervical cancer is well documented to be caused by an infection acquired through sexual contact. So it is behaviorally avoidable.”
Each woman should talk to her own doctor to determine if the vaccine is best for her own wellbeing.
Regardless of taking the vaccine or not, regular Pap tests should be a must to catch the virus and/or cervical cancer early, as the vaccine does not provide protection, according to ACS, against all types of HPV.
The most concerning part of HPV contraction is the possibility of the infection leading to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, the part of the uterus that connects the upper part of the uterus and the vagina. When HPV infection is not cleared, abnormal cells can develop, possibly leading to cervical cancer. Fifty percent of women who contract this type of cancer are between 35 and 55 years old; the ACS estimated that 2005 saw 10,370 new cases diagnosed in the United States, with 3,710 dying.
To reduce HPV-related diseases, including cervical cancer, talk with your doctor, be sure to get regular Pap tests and practice safe sex.