What is HPV?
HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is actually a whole group of over 100 related viruses. Of these, genital HPV infections are some of the most common types, affecting both men and women.
The majority of HPV cases occur without symptoms, and the body’s immune system heals them naturally without any treatment and without people knowing they are infected. However, sometimes HPV infection persists for years and can cause certain types of cancer. This group of HPV viruses is known as oncogenic or carcinogenic HPVs.
The most common type of cancer caused by HPV is cervical cancer; however HPVs can also result in cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis, and throat (oropharyngeal cancer).
HPV and Cancer
Low-risk HPV types rarely develop into cancer. High-risk HPV types can lead to cancer, although most high-risk HPV infections go away on their own. There is no way to tell which individuals with HPV will go on to develop cancer or other related health problems. Today, high-risk HPV infections are considered the major cause of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer affects half a million women each year worldwide, and many die from the disease.
Genital HPV Transmission
Genital HPV is passed on through genital contact during vaginal and anal sex, as well as oral sex. HPV can be contracted from both straight and same-sex partners. HPV infection can persist for years after contact with an infected person, and it is possible to contract more than one type of HPV.
Preventing HPV and Related Cancers
The only way to eliminate the risk of genital HPV infection and related cancers is to abstain from any sexual contact with another individual. If you are going to be sexually active, however, you can best prevent HPV by choosing a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship. Note that although condom use is associated with lower rates of HPV, one can still spread or become infected by HPV while using a condom.
Today there are vaccines that are highly effective in preventing cervical cancer. Two vaccines that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include Cervarix and Gardasil. Women can also prevent cervical cancer by going for routine Pap tests that locate abnormal cells on the cervix so that they can be removed before cancer develops. Pap tests are now conducted as part of routine gynecologic exams, and the experts recommend that women have a Pap test at least once every 3 years, beginning no later than age 21. Note that even women who have been vaccinated should still have regular Pap tests since the vaccine does not protect against all types of cervical cancer.
Currently there are no approved screening tests for early detection of other types of cancers such as penile, anal, and throat cancer. However, there are special tests doctors can administer for persons with possible symptoms of these cancers.