Human papillomavirus. It’s a mouthful. HPV for short. But what is it? It is a very, very common virus of which there are more than 100 different types. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that at any one time, 79 million Americans are infected with HPV and about 14 million are newly infected each year. In fact, HPV is so common that just about everyone will be infected at some point in their lives.
Should you be concerned? No and yes. No, in that with that many people infected, clearly it’s usually a benign infection (benign meaning not harmful). Many if not most people, will clear the infection, and many will become infected again. It’s just a part of life for the most part.
The “yes” is for several reasons. HPV is very easy to transmit, but there is no way for you to tell who is infected. That is why you can get it over and over again. For some people, and for reasons that are not clear at this time, it can develop into illness, sometimes serious, in some people. Some types of HPV cause the common wart that you see on hands or other places on the skin. Some types cause genital warts.
And some types cause cancer. Most, if not all, cervical cancers and about half of throat cancers are caused by HPV. Other cancers caused by HPV include anal, vulvar, and penile. There is now even evidence that some skin cancers are related to HPV. In the best cases, people with cancer have to suffer through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy - and in the worst cases, they will die. And through it all, people will suffer, fear, uncertainty and expense.
So it’s very easy to get HPV, hard to tell if you have it, and it can cause serious illness. What should you do? Well, the good news is that we have tools that help. For women, the Pap test can detect changes to cells in the cervix before they become cancer. This allows the doctor to remove the area infected with HPV before cancer develops. Thanks to the Pap test, no woman should ever even get cervical cancer - much less die from it. And for both men and women, we also now have an HPV vaccine. The vaccine is effective against nine of the types of HPV, but it’s the nine types most likely to cause disease. The vaccine is very safe, is most effective before the age of 15, but can be helpful for some over this age, depending on their circumstances.
To sum it up, it’s very hard to avoid getting HPV, but there are things you can do to prevent getting sick from it. See your primary care doctor at least annually, get your Pap test at the intervals recommended by your doctor if you’re a woman, and discuss the vaccine for yourself and your children.
Dr. Donna Williams, DrPH
Director, Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Programs