HPV infection is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomavirus is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. Of these, approximately 30 different types of HPV infect the genital area and are spread primarily through any type of genital contact. Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms; therefore, most infected persons are unaware that they have HPV or if they transmitted the disease to their partner.
Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. All types of HPV can infect both men and women equally, however women suffer the majority of serious health consequences as a result of HPV infections.
Approximately 10 of the 30 identified genital HPV types are classified as “high-risk” and they can lead to abnormal changes to the cervical cells, and possibly cervical cancer. These pre-cancerous to cancerous changes are what the Pap smear was designed to detect.
There is no “cure” for HPV infection, although, in most women, the infection goes away on its own over time with no treatment, other than careful follow-up with your Doctor. However, for persistent or severe infections, specialized treatment by a Gynecologist may be required.
Besides abstinence, the best strategy to reduce your exposure to HPV is to have a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. However, it is difficult to determine whether a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected.
For those choosing to be sexually active and who are not in long-term mutually monogamous relationships, reducing the number of sexual partners and choosing a partner less likely to be infected may reduce the risk of genital HPV infection. Partners less likely to be infected include those who have had no or few prior sex partners.
HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. While the effect of condoms in preventing HPV infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer, an HPV-associated disease.
Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine that is highly effective in preventing infection with the two worst HPV types that cause most (70 percent) cervical cancers, and the two HPV types that cause most (90 percent) of the genital warts. All women ages 12 to 26 are highly encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to get vaccinated.
As our understanding of HPV and its implications for women grows, all women should be familiar with this important health issue and should discuss their particular concerns with their doctor. The combination of regular Pap smears with HPV testing, along with appropriate vaccination and prevention strategies can be lifesaving.