The statistics might seem shocking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 6.2 million Americans will become infected each year. That’s almost the equivalent of the population of the state of Indiana. At least half of sexually active men and women will come in contact with it and become infected at some point.
By the age of 50, at least 80 percent of women will have had the infection at some time. For some of those women, it will lead to cervical cancer. It is among the most common sexually transmitted infections, yet many are unaware of it.
It is human papillomavirus.
“That’s a really high number, especially for not having heard of it until this year,” said Shelby Miller, senior deaf education major. “I don’t know how something that common can be so unheard of.”
What is HPV?
“It’s a virus that causes warts anywhere on the body,” said Chief University Physician Ray Leone. “All warts are caused by HPV, but they are not all caused by the same types.”
There are more than 100 strains of HPV, and more than 30 are sexually transmitted.
When someone is exposed, the virus tries to make warts and the person’s immune system tries to stop it.
“Viruses are like wart factories,” Leone said.
HPV and cervical cancer
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 10 out of the 30 genital HPV types can lead to cervical cancer, in rare cases.
“All HPV does is cause warts,” said Leone.
Usually, the warts will go away on their own, but it may take as long at 18 months. In other cases, the changes around the skin of the warts may cause cervical cancer.
Abnormal pap tests are usually caused by HPV, said Leone. At the DeWeese Health Center, if a woman has an abnormal pap test, a DNA test is done on the sample to see if there is evidence of the virus.
Leone said the health center tests for 18 types of HPV, 13 of which are considered high to moderate risk and five that are considered low risk.
However, Leone pointed out that just because someone has a high-risk type of HPV does not mean they will get cervical cancer; it simply means it will need to be treated more aggressively and watched more closely.
“It’s still a relatively low percentage,” he said.
Men do not get the subtypes of HPV that cause cervical cancer, though women are becoming infected with those types.
“The theory is they must carry it, but don’t have symptoms,” Leone said. “Where are they carrying it?”
“That’s bizarre that men carry it but it doesn’t affect them the same way as women,” Miller said.
In rare cases, some subtypes can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus or penis.
Abstinence is the only way to prevent getting an HPV infection.
“Even condoms don’t protect a person 100 percent,” Leone said.
Genital warts are the only symptom of an HPV infection, though not everyone gets them. Some people will not have warts, but they are contagious and shedding the virus, he said.
“There’s no good way that a person can tell they’ve been recently exposed,” he said.
“It’s kind of scary because it could be very serious and you may not know you have it,” said Jen Lysiak, sophomore interior design major. “It is scary to know it could happen and you could be oblivious to it all.”
In June 2006, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to recommend the first vaccine for preventing certain types of HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The vaccine, Gardasil, is recommended for women ages 9 to 25, said Tim Brown, the director of clinical pharmacal therapy at Akron General Medical Center.
However, most people feel it should be given around age 12, he said.
The vaccine only guards against four types of HPV: types 16 and 18, which are the cause of 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, and types 6 and 11, which account for 90 percent of anal cancer cases.
“Those are the four main ones we’ve identified,” he said.
The vaccine is a three-dose series, and it is not yet known if more doses will be needed after that.
“We’re unsure if you’ll have to dose it again,” Brown said.
A woman does not need to be sexually active but should not wait until she is to get the vaccine, Brown said.
“HPV can happen at any given time,” he explained. “That way, when they make that decision (to be sexually active), they’re covered.”
It is also recommended that a women get the vaccine if she already has one of the four types covered, because most do not know which HPV virus they have, and the vaccine will guard against the three she does not have.
“They need to check with their insurance, because it’s really expensive,” Brown said.
The series costs $650, and most insurance companies are beginning to reimburse customers for the series, he said.
There is a possibility in the near future for men to get the vaccine.
“I’m a big fan of this vaccine,” Leone said.
Contact health and medical reporter Allison Bray at [email protected]