Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV is a different virus than HIV (which can lead to AIDS / acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and HSV (herpes). HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person.
In most cases, the virus is cleared by the body’s immune system and does not cause any health problems. But when the virus does not go away, it can cause medical problems like genital warts and cancer. HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer). The types of HPV that can cause genital warts (low-risk HPV) are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers (high-risk HPV). Check this to learn more about the different HPV types.
New data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 1 in 5 Americans had a high-risk strain of human papilloma virus (HPV). Nearly double that percentage, more than 2 in 5, tested positive for any kind of genital HPV. The data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that men have more HPV than women. Men also had more instances of high-risk oral HPV.
The only 100% effective way to prevent HPV transmission is abstinence from any sexual contact. If celibacy is not for you, another HPV prevention strategy is to limit the number of sexual partners you have and to be monogamous while you are in a sexual relationship. The more sexual partners you have, the more possible exposure you have to HPV.
For those who are sexually active, condoms may lower the chances of getting HPV, if used with every sex act, from start to finish. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
Some health effects caused by HPV can be prevented with vaccines. There are 3 vaccines approved to protect against HPV. Gardasil: (approved in 2006) protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. Cervarix: (approved in 2009) protects women and girls against the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. Gardasil 9: (approved in 2014) protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
Regular cervical cancer screening (Pap smear and HPV tests) and follow-up can prevent most cases of cervical cancer. The Pap test can detect cell changes in the cervix before they turn into cancer. The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. If your doctor finds any abnormal results from a Pap smear or an HP test, make sure to follow up in case you need treatment or further tests.
Talk to your healthcare professional for more information.
Dr Melvin Sanicas, vaccinologist and public health physician is a regional medical expert at Sanofi Pasteur, a consultant for the World Health Organization, and an agenda contributor for the World Economic Forum. He was a Global Health Fellow and Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he managed the Collaboration for TB Vaccine Discovery. He is a partner at the Brighton Collaboration, a fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and a fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health.