Startling new findings from the National Center for Health Statistics show that nearly half of all American adults have the genital papilloma virus, or HPV. The New York Times reports that over 42% of Americans aged between 18 and 49 are infected — and adds that certain high-risk strains of the virus account for over 31,000 cases of cancer every year.
The study's author says that the news is alarming, especially since there are two vaccines that effectively prevent sexual transmission of HPV. The news is especially surprising since the vaccination has cut infection rates by two-thirds in teenage girls. However, the new findings parallel a recent report that showed nearly half of all men — 45.2% — have the virus. The author hopes that the new data will encourage more vaccinations.
"If we can get 11- and 12-year-olds to get the vaccine, we’ll make some progress," Geraldine McQuillan, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the new report, told the Times. "You need to give it before kids become sexually active, before they get infected. By the time they're in their mid-20s, people are infected and it's too late. This is a vaccine against cancer — that's the message."
Dr. McQuillan and her team didn't just look at HPV in the genitals, however. The new findings included data also looked at other types of the virus. The Times adds that 7.3% of Americans aged 18 to 69 had oral HPV. The study also found that men were more likely to have that particular kind of HPV than women. Higher-risk strains, which can cause mouth and pharynx cancer, appeared in 4% of the sample group.
The good news it that 90% of HPV infections can clear the body on their own. The process takes about two years, but there can be more chronic cases, as well. Those more tenacious strains can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer.
Dr. McQuillan adds that while HPV is the most common STI, most adults aren't screened for it on a regular basis. Many women will get an HPV test during a Pap smear, but that's not always the case — and many don't even know that there are many different strains of HPV. Plus, there isn't a widely used test to detect HPV in men, so most go undiagnosed.
"One of the most striking things that we really want people to know is that high-risk HPV is common," Dr. McQuillan added.