HPV – the Human Papilloma Virus – has been known for years to be the main cause of cervical cancer in women. There are over 40 types of HPV that are transmitted by direct skin to skin contact during vaginal, anal and oral sex, and most do not cause disease. However, infection with certain viral types, mainly but not exclusively HPV 16 and 18, can cause cervical cancer if not treated. This is why the Pap test is so important for women who are or have been sexually active, with men or with women. The Pap test is a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope. The Pap test can detect abnormal cells before they become cancerous, and early treatment in the doctor’s office can get rid of the problem. However, some women don’t know about the need for regular pelvic exams, or can’t afford them. There were 4,200 deaths from cervical cancer in the US last year. Cervical cancer is a very serious problem in developing countries which cannot afford to do Pap screening.
Some subtypes of HPV can also cause cancers of the vulva, penis, anus and the mouth and throat. Sexually transmitted HPV type 16 causes about 85% of anal cancers according to the National Cancer Institute. The risk for anal cancer is much higher in gay and bisexual men than heterosexual men. Women who have anal sex are also at greater risk.
Condoms, which help to prevent pregnancy and HIVAIDS, can prevent HPV infection by about 70% if used every time. Skin to skin transmission can still occur outside of the condom. Still - condom use is important with new partners. The good news is that most HPV infections are cleared by the immune system in a few years and never cause a problem. However, some people don’t clear the virus, and their infections remain.
In recent years there has been an increase of cancers of the throat and base of the tongue, caused by HPV 16. Previously known risk factors for throat cancer included smoking and alcohol, but throat cancers are now seen in younger people who don’t smoke or abuse alcohol. Throat cancers from HPV are more commonly seen in men, but women are also affected. Oral sex is considered to be a major predisposing factor. The increase in throat cancer is considered serious, because it can be hard to detect early.
Since most people do have genital and oral sex, how can we view this threat and deal with it? Prevention and early detection are vitally important. This would include:
*consistent condom use with new partners, even with oral sex. This may seem unlikely, especially for teenagers trying to do the right thing to avoid pregnancy. However, they should be informed about the problem.
*Make sure your children get the HPV vaccine, Gardasil or Cervarix – given in 3 shots over 6 months. Both are effective in preventing infections that cause cervical cancer. Gardasil is believed to prevent more HPV types, those that cause cancer of the anus, vulva and vagina. HPV vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for 11 and 12 year old girls, and girls and women age 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated. Gardasil has been found to be safe and effective for males age 9-26. Vaccinating a boy with Gardasil will help his partners, and also help him to prevent oral cancer. The cost of the vaccine is about $130 per dose - $390 for the series. Most health insurance plans cover the cost, and the Vaccines for Children program may be able to help.
*Pap tests are still important for women, even if vaccinated, because the vaccines do not prevent about 30% of HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
*Being in a faithful relationship with one partner, limiting the number of sex partners, and choosing a partner with few prior sex partners can be helpful. However, it is not always possible to know if a partner or oneself is currently infected with HPV.
*Early detection of cervical, vaginal, vulvar and anal cancer can be done by regular medical examinations, self exams, and alertness to anything that feels like a persistent sore or abnormal growth.
*Early detection of cancers of the mouth and throat can be done by regular visits to the dentist and dental hygienist, who should look for abnormalities in the mouth and throat, including hidden areas at the back of the tongue. Everyone should be aware of symptoms such as a persistent sore throat or mouth sore, a feeling of a mass in the throat, a lump in the neck, or difficulty swallowing.
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* Keep your immune system strong by getting enough sleep, exercising moderately, eating healthy food (lots of vegetables!), and avoiding tobacco, dangerous drugs, and excess alcohol.
Our venerable sage Ben Franklin told us: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let’s follow his advice.
Sadja Greenwood, M.D., MPH back issues on this blog