This seldom-discussed virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and the secret culprit behind every diagnosed case of cervical cancer.
Sex education in public schools has long been a polarizing topic in the United States; currently, only 22 states (and Washington, D.C.) mandate that schools provide student with sexual education. Yet, this oversight leads to alarming health consequences for America’s sexually active population. While HIV and accidental pregnancies are the well-publicized consequences that result from ignorance about sexual health, they are far from the only risk facing the uninformed American masses. Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that almost every sexually active individual will come into contact with the virus at some point in their life. Currently, 42.5% of women are living with HPV.
The label HPV actually encompasses a group of 150 different viruses. Many men and women never realize they are infected because the body fights off the infection within two years of contracting it; however, HPV can lead to harmful consequences. There are two types of viruses: low-risk and high-risk. Low-risk are the varieties rarely noticed by infected persons. They never lead to cancer, but certain varieties (6 and 11 in particular) can lead to genital warts; 90% of all instances of genital warts are caused by these two viruses. The warts may appear raised or flat, in varying sizes, usually pinkish or flesh-toned. An outbreak of warts generally grows for six months before evening out. After growth stops, patients may choose to treat the warts with topical creams or surgical options, which are usually more effective.
The second classification of virus is the high-risk type. These viruses may lead to cancer, including cervical cancer, oropharyngeal cancer (affecting the tonsils, tongue, and throat), or cancer of the genitals. One dozen different HPV strains have been identified as high-risk, but 16 and 18 are responsible for the majority of cancer cases. After a patient has been diagnosed with HPV, doctors recommend closely watching the genitals for any sign of abnormality or possibly cancerous cell growth.
HPV is most often transmitted through vaginal or anal sex, but the virus can also travel through oral sex or genital-to-genital contact without penetration. A proper understanding of the passage of the virus is crucial in protecting one’s health. Pregnant women should exercise extra caution, because genital HPV may be passed to infants during childbirth.
Vaccines were made available in 2006 to ward against some of the higher-risk strains of HPV. Regular medical check-ups also help doctors catch and treat infection in its early stages. Doctors can easily test women for the presence of HPV by taking a simple swab of cells from the cervix; however, the virus is undetectable in men. Ultimately, caution and awareness of all the risks are the only ways active individuals can properly safeguard their sexual health.