Articles

What is HPV and how can you protect yourself from it? – Emma Bryce

September 1, 2019


At some point, most sexually active people will be
infected with human papillomavirus, or ‘HPV.’ There are over 100 types of HPV, and most of the time the body
eliminates infections without symptoms– but some strains can pose serious
health risks down the line. HPV causes contact infections, which means the virus stays in the cells
near the point of infection rather than spreading throughout
the whole body. Since HPV is often transmitted through
sexual activity, this usually means the cells of the
vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth and throat. We can test for HPV in cells from
these areas, but while testing for the virus
is scientifically possible, it isn’t common. The main reason is that, while there are treatments for the
adverse health effects caused by HPV, there’s no treatment for the virus itself. So testing for HPV would yield many,
many positives, and although most of them won’t
be cause for concern, there is still no treatment plan for
clearing the body of the virus. But there are other good ways to
protect yourself from HPV. We’re going to walk through how
HPV can cause harm, who’s at risk, and how to
minimize those risks. The body’s immune system is able to
eradicate most strains of HPV before they cause any harm— and without people even knowing
they’ve been infected. Certain other strains– like HPV 6 and 11– cause abnormalities in the cells of the
infected tissue, which can develop into genital warts. While these are infectious
and require treatment, usually with topical creams, wart-causing strains don’t create
longer-term damage. But another 13 strains can cause DNA
mutations that cause cells to divide at a much faster pace than normal, propelling the development of
cancerous growths. The cells of the cervix are
especially at risks. Two in particular– HPV 16 and 18– are responsible for the majority of
cases of cervical cancer, which is now the fourth most common
type of cancer in women. It can take up to 20 years for cancer
symptoms to appear, but with regular screening, we can discover cellular abnormalities
in the cervix before they develop into cancer. Women over 21 can undergo a regular
pap smear, where a sample of tissue is gently
scraped from the lining of the cervix to test for abnormal cells. A positive test doesn’t mean the person
has cervical cancer, but rather that there are irregular
cells in the cervix that could develop into cancer
in the future. Patients are then either monitored
with more frequent pap smears, or, for more severe irregularities, undergo a procedure called a colposcopy. This involves a doctor examining the
cervix through a microscope, and possibly taking a small biopsy of
tissue for closer examination. In some cases, the affected tissue
may be removed. HPV infections of the throat may lead to
head and neck cancers, but for now there’s no equivalent of the
pap smear for the throat. Using condoms helps prevent
the spread of HPV during sex. And there are three safe, effective
vaccines that all target HPV 16 and 18. The vaccine comes in two or three doses
a few months apart, and it’s only beneficial if you
receive them all. Right now the vaccine is part of standard
care for girls aged 11 to 18 in many countries– though it’s increasingly becoming
available to boys as well. Adult women and men in countries including
the United States and the United Kingdom can opt to receive the vaccine, and evidence suggests that vaccination of
women and men could reduce the worldwide incidence of
cervical cancer by almost 90%. Researchers are also
developing an injection for people who are already infected
with HPV 16 and 18, which would target the infected cells to stop them from developing
into cancerous ones. So while there’s still room for
improvement in screening, treatment, and access to each, condom use, vaccination,
and cervical screening can each reduce the harm caused by HPV.

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