What’s the deal with HPV?

HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. There are over 100 strains of HPV, about 30 of which can be sexually transmitted. HPV can cause a number of different diseases including genital warts and cervical cancer, as well as other less common cancers of the anus, penis, vulva and vagina. Different strains of HPV cause different diseases; the “low-risk” types are more likely to cause genital warts while the “high-risk” types are more likely to lead to cancer.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that about 50% of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some time in their lives.  Most people who have HPV have no visible signs of infection, so they spread it to their partners without even knowing they have it.  HPV is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact so you can get it even if you are using a condom.  There is no medical treatment for HPV but fortunately, in about 90% of cases an individual’s immune system will get rid of the virus on its own within two years. 

It is very important that all sexually active women receive an annual exam and Pap smear.  Your health care provider will examine you for genital warts and/or signs of precancerous changes of the cervix called “cervical dysplasia.” Cervical cancer is most successfully treated when it is caught early.

A vaccine that protects against the four most common strains of HPV is now available for women ages 9-26. This vaccine will greatly decrease your chances of becoming infected with one of the viruses that can cause cervical cancer.  If you’ve already been infected with one of these four strains, the vaccine won’t cure you but it can prevent you from getting one of the other types.  Even if you do get the vaccine, it is very important that you still go for your regular Pap smears.

The staff at Student Health Women’s Services is happy to answer any of your questions, perform all recommended exams and tests, and provide the HPV vaccine.  In the mean time, here are some other good sources of reliable information:

http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/    http://www.ashastd.org/hpv/hpv_learn_myths.cfm

Angie Walker, Med IV (Ohio State College of Medicine)

John A. Vaughn, MD (Ohio State Student Health Services)