February 18, 2008
HPV: Get the facts
Sherry L. Jones, formerly a women’s health care nurse practitioner at Indiana University Health Center, is a registered nurse, certified, in pulmonary/critical care medicine at Emory Crawford Long Hospital.
When I worked as a nurse in the student health center at Indiana University, I found that there were many questions and misconceptions that both men and women have about their sexual health. Many wanted to know more about the human papillomavirus, or HPV, an important health concern for young people today.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that more than 20 million men and women in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV and there are 6.2 million new infections each year. HPV is most common in women and men who are in their late teens and early 20s. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired HPV infection.
A young female student came into my office for her annual gynecological exam. She had known for a brief time that she had some exophytic condylomata (external warts) and was in the process of being treated. She explained to me that she never wanted her boyfriend to get HPV from her. She was overwhelmed with the fact that her current boyfriend hadn’t displayed any symptoms, thinking she certainly couldn’t have gotten the virus from him. This would create a very difficult situation for her relationship, she said.
I explained to her that even though her partner did not display any visible symptoms of warts did not mean that he was not already infected. She now had an abnormal pap smear and that would show up on her parents’ insurance and that she would have to finally discuss this dreaded issue with her mother. She said that it had caused her so much embarrassment and humiliation, living with these visible, contagious, itchy, painful, cauliflower-shaped genital warts.
This is why I want students to know HPV can be prevented. The first step is to learn the facts.
HPV is spread via vaginal, anal and oral intercourse, through skin-to-skin contact of infected areas, and from mother to child during birth. It is carried on the skin and mucus membranes of infected individuals.
Of the 100-plus strains of this virus, about 30 are transmitted via sexual contact. A few of these are known to cause visible genital warts. Other symptoms are rare. Strains that cause genital warts are least likely to cause cancers.
Warts can be removed through a variety of methods, but wart removal is not always recommended by health care providers. Even if warts have been removed, it is not known for certain whether the person can still pass the viral infection on to others, according to the CDC.
Women should get routine pelvic exams and Pap smears, which can serve as an initial detection. Men and women should regularly inspect their genitals for signs of infection.
In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the approval of the first vaccine developed to prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts caused by HPV. Called Garadsil, the vaccine is highly effective against four strains of the HPV virus, including the two that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers. The vaccine is approved for use in females 9 to 26 years of age.
You may be able to reduce your risk of infection during vaginal and anal intercourse by using latex or polyurethane condoms, and by using condoms or dental dams during oral sex.
Talk to your health care provider about these options. Know your partner’s history and be honest about yours.
Don’t let HPV changes change you!