The human papillomavirus (aka HPV) is more or less everywhere, statistically speaking. It’s estimated that 75 to 80 percent of all sexually active adults will have some form of HPV in their lifetime. Some will develop genital warts, while in others, the virus will lead to a life-threatening disease: Nearly 12,000 new cases of HPV-related cervical cancers are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The crazy thing? Since there are so many different strains, some of which are asymptomatic, many women don’t even know they’ve got it.
“HPV is a skin-to-skin contact infection,” says Diane Harper, M.D., professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and a lead researcher of HPV and cervical cancer prevention and treatment. Translation: Condoms can’t shield you from HPV because the virus could be lingering on skin outside of the condom. “There are over 100 types of HPV that invade the human skin, and 40 types invade the soft, wet, mucosa in the mouth, anal, and genital area,” says Harper.
It’s those 40 that have been linked to cervical cancer. “HPV-16 causes the greatest number of cancers,” says Harper. “About 90 percent of the time, HPV infections disappear within two years and never cause any ill effect. Five percent of the time, the HPV infections will turn into a cancer precursor, and about half of those cancer precursors will develop into cancer.”
All the more reason to stay HPV-free, right? Schedule an annual ob/gyn exam to get a Pap test, which will screen for cellular changes that, left untreated, could lead to cervical cancer. Your doctor can also do a visual check on the outside of your lady bits for any signs of tiny, skin-colored, wart-like growths; if any are found, they can be treated.
But, cautions Harper, know that a Pap is not a flawless method: “Pap screening programs are very effective but not perfect at early detection for early treatment,” she says. What’s even more frustrating is that once you have HPV (whatever the form) there’s no pill to pop or shot to get rid of it. “No anti-viral exists for it to date,” says Harper. “There is no treatment for HPV infections — the only treatment is for cells already infected with HPV that have changed into a cancer precursor or a cancer.” What that means: surgical removal to cut out the HPV-ridden growths either on the outside, or inside of your body.
The good news: There are two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, which pretty much ward off the most common strains. "Both vaccines protect against some types of HPV that cause cancer and some types that cause genital warts," says Harper, who helped develop both vaccines. "Cervarix provides better protection against cancer-causing types and Gardasil provides better protection against genital warts. But they both only protect against a limited number of HPV types, not all the types that cause cervical cancers.”
The ideal candidate for these is anyone not yet diagnosed with any strain of HPV. But, even if you have one strain, if you get the shot anyway, it could prevent you from getting other strains of HPV you haven’t yet encountered. It’s not a one time shot, though. “It is unknown how long they last, although Cervarix lasts at least nine years, and Gardasil about five years,” Harper says. Talk to your doc to see if you should opt for it. Be aware that unless you are under the age of 26, many insurance companies won’t cover it, so you’ll have to pay around $130 a pop — and it requires a sequence of three shots total.
So, while we know we don't really need to tell you this, we think it bears repeating: Be smart when it comes to practicing safe sex and get regular exams to check up on it — because you are truly the only advocate when it comes to your health.
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Illustrated by Emily Kowzan