HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS INFECTIONGenital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by human papillomavirus. This is a group of more than one hundred viruses, at least thirty-five of which can infect the genital tissues. HPV is spread by direct contact of infected tissue with uninfected tissue during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. An estimated 50 percent of sexually active adults have been infected with one or more of the HPV types that cause genital infections. At any time, an estimated 20 million Americans have genital HPV infections. About 5.5 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year.
Most types of HPV that infect genital tissues do not cause any symptoms. Certain types of HPV cause genital warts that usually appear as soft, moist, pink, or red swellings that grow quickly. Several types of genital HPV infection (not usually the types that cause warts) can increase the risk of cervical cancer in women and other genital cancers in both women and men. A small percentage of women with certain types of abnormal cells will develop cancer if these cells are not removed. Frequent Pap smears and careful medical follow-up, with treatment if necessary, can help ensure that precancerous cells caused by HPV infection do not develop into life-threatening cervical cancer. Treatment can eliminate genital warts, but it does not necessarily eliminate genital HPV infection.
How Do You Prevent HPV?
- Abstinence is 100 percent effective. Abstinence, however, is not a realistic public-health strategy for cutting down on the spread of HPV.
- Latex or polyurethane condoms can help protect both the male and the female partner from most STDs. However, genital HPV, including genital warts, may be present in areas not covered by the condom, resulting in transmission of infection to a new person. And, as many studies of teen sexual behavior have proven, few teens use condoms 100 percent of the time, or use them correctly every time.
- The HPV vaccine:
The HPV vaccine is in fact the first vaccine ever introduced to help prevent cancer. Its primary goal is to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer in women.
There are currently two brands of the vaccine licensed for use in the United States: Gardasil and Cervavix, which were first introduced in 2006. Gardasil is, by far, the most frequently used because it covers more strains of the HPV than does Cervavix, including the most common types that cause cervical cancer and genital warts. The vaccine, which is given as three separate injections over six months, with the doses spaced about two months apart, is most effective if all three doses are received before the first-ever sexual contact.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that girls start the vaccine when they have their checkups at ages 11 or 12 years. Why this young? As was mentioned above, to be most effective, the vaccine's three doses must be given to girls before they ever have sex and, sadly, a significant number of girls have had sex by age 15.
Besides 11- or 12-year-old girls, other candidates for HPV include females ages 11 to 26. (The vaccine's effectiveness--how well it works--is still being studied in women over 26 years of age.)
More recently, a third group was approved for the vaccination: males ages 9 to 26 years. HPV vaccine can prevent genital warts in males, and can help decrease the spread of HPV to women.
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