75% of sexually active women get HPV

My best friend has just contracted HPV from her last boyfriend. She has told me how common it is, and it has made me concerned that I could also have it. How is it contracted, and what happens if I do have it? Is it treatable?

HPV (human papilloma virus) is the gift that keeps on giving. It is a sexually transmitted infection that is contracted by more than 75% of sexually active women at some stage during their life. Most people (it affects men too) never experience any symptoms, but, as carriers, they unknowingly pass the virus on to their unsuspecting sexual partners.

Often, women only find out that they have been infected when the virus is picked up during cervical screening. For women who are in monogamous relationships, a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can raise obvious concerns about infidelity, however HPV can lie dormant for years so a positive smear is not necessarily a reliable indication that a partner has been unfaithful.

Not all strains of the virus are sexually transmitted. HPV is an umbrella term used to describe a group of about a hundred different viruses that can cause cellular changes such as warts on the skin and on the moist membranes in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat. About 60 strains of HPV cause common skin warts and verrucas on the hands or feet and the other 40 strains are sexually transmitted. Low-risk genital strains such as HPV 6 and 11 can cause genital warts which can show up weeks, or months after exposure to an infected sexual partner. If no warts become visible no treatment is needed, but if bumps or cauliflower-shaped growths appear, they need to be treated with topical ointments or ablation by heating, freezing or removing the warts.

Although genital warts are the most common sexually transmitted infection, they are less problematic than high-risk HPV strains such as HPV 16 and 18, which are thought to cause about 70% of cervical cancers. Because cancer of the cervix is now the most common cancer in females under 35, all girls aged 12 to 13 are offered vaccination as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. The idea is to catch girls before they become sexually active in order to protect them from consequences of HPV and it is estimated that the programme will save about 400 lives every year. A bonus of using the vaccination to prevent cervical cancer is that it also prevents girls contracting genital warts.

There are two vaccines in use to protect against HPV. Cervarix protects against HPV types (16 and 18) and Gardasil protects against four HPV types (6, 11, 16 and 18). Both vaccines have been approved for women up to 45 years of age (Bornstein, 2009). The vaccines work best in women who are not yet sexually active and have never been exposed to any strain of the virus but there is no reliable blood test to show which HPV strains you might have been exposed to, so , it is difficult to know whether you would benefit.

In terms of day-to-day prevention, HPV can infect skin not normally covered by a condom, so barrier methods limit risk, but do not fully protect. Limiting the number of people that you have sex with helps because there is a positive correlation between HPV and higher numbers of sexual partners. Quitting smoking also seems to help. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to attend cervical screening appointments religiously.

In Ireland CervicalCheck provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60 in order to spot early cervical abnormalities. However, if you experience any symptoms in between screenings, see your GP immediately. The sooner abnormal cells are picked up the easier it is to treat the virus. Women diagnosed at a younger age are more likely to survive cervical cancer: the survival rate in women under the age of 40 is almost 90%.

* Email questions to: suzigodson@mac.com 


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