HPV – you’ve heard about it in the news, maybe you or your daughters have even been immunised against it. But what is it exactly and what risks does it pose?

The Most Common STI

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). In fact, in New Zealand, most sexually active people will acquire some form of genital HPV at some time in their lives.

Most people who become infected never know that they have the virus and do not develop symptoms or health problems. In the majority of cases the body’s immune system clears the virus without help within two years.

Wart Virus

HPV is a wart virus. However, there are many different forms of HPV (referred to as types) some of which cause warts and some of which do not.

HPV types are classified as “low risk” – those that cause warts, and “high risk” – those that cause cancer. HPV types that cause warts do not cause cancer. Some HPV types cause neither warts nor cancer.

Areas of Infection

HPV is passed through sexual contact and affects the skin and mucous membranes of the genital areas including the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus, scrotum, penis and thigh.

The virus causes normal cells to turn abnormal. These cellular changes can result in warts or, if the HPV is a high risk type, in cancer.

Though HPV affects both men an women, HPV-related cancer is rare in men and the virus has a far higher profile in women, most notably as cervical cancer – a fact which has resulted in the common misconception of HPV as being exclusively a woman’s disease.

Genital Warts

Most genital warts are caused by types 6 and 11 HPV. Warts may manifest on any of the abovementioned infection sites within weeks or months of sexual contact with an infected partner.

There are various methods available for the removal of genital warts, but they do not remove the underlying viral cause. In some cases the warts will disappear without treatment.

Cervical Cancer

About 70% of cervical cancers are caused by types 16 and 18 HPV. If one of these high risk HPV types infects the cervix and is not cleared by the body’s immune system it may linger for a period of years, changing the cells of the cervix. In time, these changes may lead to cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer shows no symptoms until it is in its advanced stages. Pre-cancerous changes in the cervix can, however, be identified by Pap testing, or cervical cancer screening. Once identified they can be removed before cancer develops.

Given the slow progression of the condition and its susceptibility to treatment if detected in its early stages, regular cervical checks are the most effective form of protection against cancerous progression in the cervix.

Prevention

Certain behaviours can help limit the likelihood of HPV infection.

  • Limit the number of sexual partners.
  • Delay becoming sexually active.
  • Ensure male partners use a condom every time.

It should be noted, though, that none of these behaviours offers 100% protection. Even if you have only one, long-term partner, for instance, you can still become infected if that partner carries the virus. Condoms, too, are not completely effective as HPV can infect areas that are not covered by the condom.

Vaccination

In New Zealand the drug Gardasil has been licensed to immunise females between 9 and 26 years of age and males between 9 and 15.

Gardasil is currently available free to females between the ages of 12 and 18 and immunises against types 6 and 11 HPV which cause 90% of genital warts, and types 16 & 18 HPV which cause 70% of cervical cancers.

The vaccine is highly effective at preventing infection with HPV and should ideally be administered before the patient becomes sexually active as it cannot protect against its target HPV types if they are acquired before vaccination.

For more information on HPV visit The New Zealand HPV Project.

Lear more about HPV in this video.

HPV – a Quick Guide to this Common Sexually Transmitted Virus, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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