An Introduction to Human Papillomavirus

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Guest Blog by Holly Banaian, Former Risk Reduction Community Health Worker with Victory Programs’ Mobile Prevention Team

There is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) that nearly every sexually active person will be exposed to at some point in their lives, and it’s one without a “cure.” Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an STI with over 150 different strains. It’s spread, most often, through genital to genital contact. Transmission of the infection does not require penetration of any kind, however, HPV is typically spread through anal, vaginal, and sometimes oral sex. HPV can result in genital warts, dysplasia, and cervical cancer. The strains that produce genital warts are not the same strains that produce dysplasia/cancer, so it should be noted that genital warts do not lead to cancer.

While all sexually active people are at risk for HPV, having multiple sexual partners, a weakened immune system, damaged skin or advanced age can increase the risk of infection. Risk factors for developing cervical cancer as a result of HPV include: being rarely or never screened for HPV, HPV persistence, HIV, high-dose steroid use, history of lower genital tract neoplasia (vaginal, vulvar, or anal), infection with chlamydia trachomatis and possibly herpes simplex virus, tobacco smoking, use of oral contraceptives, and more than three full-term pregnancies.

The good news is that cervical cancer and genital warts can be prevented by a vaccine called Gardasil. The most recent iteration of Gardasil called, “Gardasil 9,” has been approved for women up to age 45 and protects against the nine strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer or genital warts. Using condoms and barriers during sex remains a highly effective way of preventing all STI’s, including HPV.

The reason chlamydia and gonorrhea are often cited as the most common STI’s is that there is no single-step test for HPV. Pap smears only detect abnormal cells that may be cancerous or pre-cancerous. If the lab reports abnormal cell changes an HPV test is conducted, subsequently.

Most HPV clears up on it’s own, however, in cases where cervical cancer or genital warts result, the conditions are managed by traditional cancer treatments or anti-tumor topical creams, respectively.

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