‘You could have it for years … and not even know it’

Andrew Hampp

Credit: Ben Breier

About 6.2 million Americans get something every year, and it’s not just a birthday.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the human papilloma virus, or HPV, infects 6.2 million people a year, with nearly 20 million currently infected with the disease. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. The CDC reports that 50 percent of all sexually active men and women will be infected with one of HPV’s approximately 100 strains at some point in their lives.

“Cassandra,” a senior human development and family studies major who asked that her real name be kept private, was infected with a lower-risk strain of the virus in the spring of 2003. After receiving abnormal results from a regular pap test, Cassandra’s doctor informed her that she had “low-grade cell changes consistent with HPV.”

“I didn’t really understand it at first, just from the way it was phrased,” she said. “I was just really nervous talking to the doctor. I didn’t think to ask him, ‘Well, does that mean I have it? Does that I mean I could have it? Does that mean I have to get more tests done?”

Cassandra is luckier than many of the millions of Americans currently infected with the disease. The majority of people with HPV aren’t even aware they have it, said Sue Hirt, director of patient services at Planned Parenthood in Akron.

“You could have it for years and years and not even know it,” Hirt said. “It’s important that older women get a Pap test because it can be there for a long time.”

But while women like Cassandra can be made aware of their HPV infection through a regular Pap test, men have no way of knowing they have HPV unless they exhibit a key side effect.

“There really are no tests for males,” Hirt said. “The only way you can tell is if they have genital warts. It’s the only visible sign.”

Luckily for most HPV-carriers, however, Hirt said most strains of the disease are low-risk and never show symptoms. These strains eventually clear themselves out and go away.

Dr. Ray Leone, a physician at the DeWeese Health Center who treats both males and females infected with the disease, said when HPV patients do require treatment, there are two treatment options.

For genital warts, Leone prescribes liquid nitrogen to self-administer in the infected area. This freezes the infected area and is especially effective for women.

For pre-cancerous cells, however, Leone performs a colposcopy, or reflex test, in which the skin of the infected area is magnified 15 times to determine whether or not the HPV is high-risk or low-risk.

But no matter what the diagnosis, Leone said the outlook for patients infected with HPV is almost always positive if the disease is detected early enough.

“Over the last 15 years, evolution of the treatment and evaluation for HPV has improved phenomenally,” he said. “For most people, it will resolve on its own.

“Sometimes it’s just bad luck. If you cut yourself on a needle with HPV, you’re not necessarily gonna be exposed. With the high-risk types we just have to be more aggressive.”

Cassandra, who had a colposcopy, said although her pre-cancerous cells have been removed, she’s still nervous about having HPV.

“For the most part, I’m just really confused about the whole thing,” she said. “I do kind of feel like it should have been explained better to me. I was aware of it – I knew one or two people who had it, but really didn’t know much about it. I’ve tried looking it up on Web sites for more information.”

Dr. Marcella Stephens, a physician at Planned Parenthood in Akron, makes sure her patients are aware of what actions they can take to prevent themselves from contracting the virus.

“Make sure you limit the number of partners you’re having unprotected intercourse with,” she said, adding that the odds of college students contracting the disease are higher than normal. “Be aware that the virus is there if you’re not in any exclusively monogamous relationship with the same partner your entire life. If people knew (the statistics), they would know they’re not alone with this diagnosis.”

In Cassandra’s case, the HPV has taken a path that began with her ex-boyfriend’s former girlfriend, was spread to him and ended with her. Cassandra has since had to deal with telling her new partners about her disease, including her current boyfriend.

“He was a little put off by it,” she said of his initial reaction. “But he asked some of his friends and looked up some of it on his own, since it’s nothing especially dangerous for guys, nothing life-threatening. We’re just careful – we always use protection and things like that.”

But Hirt, who quoted a Center For Disease Control statistic saying that 80 percent of all sexually active women will contract some strain of the disease before the age of 50, said even protected sex with multiple partners can be risky.

“The jury’s really out on condoms,” she said. “They can’t cover all the area that may be infected. Whatever part of the skin has that infection can infect you. That’s probably why condoms don’t always work because they don’t cover everything … Using a condom is better than nothing, but the best protection is to limit the number of partners you have.”

Hirt added that even those who contract a high-risk strain of HPV are not likely to have long-term side effects if treated promptly and thoroughly enough.

“The thing to remember is that it’s not hopeless,” Hirt said. “If you are infected with HPV, you certainly can do something about it.”

Contact features editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].