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SEVEN. THE HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS VACCINE

Certain types of HPV are associated with cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, and vulva.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. In fact, researchers estimate that 80% of all women will have acquired an HPV infection by the time they reach age 50. That statistic is astounding.

Thankfully, most of the women who become infected with HPV will clear the virus (which means that their bodies will manage to defeat it and there will be no signs of it remaining in a woman's system), and they will have no lasting effects from it. However, those women who don't clear the virus have an increased risk of getting, among other ailments, vulvar, vaginal, anal, and cervical cancer, as well as genital warts.

What are genital warts?

Interestingly, the prospect of getting genital warts[1]

seems to upset some women just as much as the chance of getting cancer. (The more precise term is "anogenital" warts because the anal region can be involved too. Anal cancer is on the rise due to anal HPV.)

One million new cases of anogenital warts are diagnosed each year. The majority of these cases last more than four months and require repeated trips to the doctor for treatment. These treatments can include such steps as applying a topical substance to the lesions, or freezing or lasering them off. Furthermore, recurrence of the disease is common, resulting in an additional series of trips to the doctor. (If you explain this process to your daughter in painstaking detail, it may prove to be a powerful motivator for her to ensure that all of her sex partners wear condoms all of the time.)

What cancers are associated with HPV?

Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, certain types of HPV are associated with cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, and vulva. In fact, in 2007, more than 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in this country, and almost 4,000 women died from it. This number would have been much higher if Pap testing wasn't such a standard practice in this country.

Tragically, Pap testing is not a routine procedure worldwide, particularly in developing countries where medical care is scarce or completely unattainable. As a result, each year more than a half-million women around the globe develop cervical cancer, and a quarter-million women die from it. In fact, cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths for women worldwide.

How is HPV transmitted?

The human papillomavirus is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal or anal intercourse. The majority of these infections occur during the first few years of sexual activity. Although the risk of getting HPV is directly related to the number of partners a female has, it's also important to note that even if a girl or a woman has only one sex partner, and that one sex partner has HPV, she can get infected. It's also important to note that the adolescent cervix seems especially vulnerable to the HPV virus. This may help to explain why the number of infections seems peculiarly high in the early years of sexual activity.

Although the majority of HPV infections are cleared from a woman's body spontaneously, a certain percentage of HPV infections are particularly persistent. Moreover, there are other factors that can place a female at increased risk for a persistent HPV infection. Specifically, if a woman smokes, is over age 30, is infected with multiple HPV subtypes, has a suppressed immune system, or is using oral contraceptives, an HPV infection can be harder to clear.

Both Gardasil and Cervarix consist of noninfectious, virus-like particles. In other words, you cant get HPV from receiving these vaccines.

  • [1] Warty structures on the genital region caused by the human papillomavirus. These are considered a sexually transmitted infection. Topical medications or surgical removal are used to treat them.
 
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