How a vaccine can help prevent this type of cancer
Viruses have been around since creatures first walked the earth. In ancient Egyptian drawings of people, we can see the effects of the polio virus. The Greek poet Homer described rabid dogs in his writings. But the ancients knew nothing about viruses.
We’ve learned a lot about viruses since then, but patients regularly misunderstand the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s a common virus. Each year, about 14 million people, including teenagers, are infected by this virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates more than 80% of sexually active women and men will be infected by an HPV virus during their lives.
What you need to know about HPV
HPV is a group of about 150 related viruses. They can transmit through oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the virus.
The virus can be transmitted even if the infected person shows no signs or symptoms. Symptoms may not develop for years after being infected. This can make it hard to determine when the infection occurred. For individuals in committed relationships, it’s entirely possible that an infection occurred well before the relationship began.
A majority of cases clear up or become dormant without treatment and without causing any health problems. A health care clinician can explain treatment for the small number of chronic cases.
Some types of HPV are considered high risk. These viruses have been associated with developing cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, penile and oral cancers.
Some types of HPV can result in genital warts, or condyloma — small growths or bumps around the anus, vulva or penis. Your health care clinician can discuss treatment options.
The HPV vaccine offers protection against the vast majority of the high-risk HPV viruses that can cause cancer.
HPV vaccines cannot treat existing cases of HPV. None of the current HPV vaccines protect against all HPV types that can cause cancer. So, it’s important for women who are vaccinated to continue to have their cervical cancer screenings.
The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same type of HPV that can cause cancers.
What parents should know
The HPV vaccine is a good way to protect young people from the virus as they mature.
Research and safety studies have verified:
- The vaccines are not infectious. They cannot cause an HPV infection.
- The vaccine does not cause cancer.
- Studies show those who receive the vaccine do not engage in earlier or riskier sexual behavior.
- There is little risk of exposure to HPV before age 13, but the risk of exposure does increase after that.
How is an HPV infection diagnosed?
We usually determine there’s an HPV infection when a Pap smear comes back positive for HPV. The patient may have noticed a condyloma caused by HPV.
If an HPV test is positive, it can represent an HPV reactivation in the patient or the partner. This does not need to be a cause for alarm.
If the test shows positive for a high-risk virus, ask your health care clinician about cancer screening options.
About the Author
Scott D. Caldwell, MD is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Aurora Obstetrics & Gynecology in West Allis.