There is still more to learn about the human papillomavirus (HPV) and its connection to cancer. This virus is considered the most common sexually transmitted disease.
Medical Advisor Ana María Guevara Zambrano, Obgyn
Confusion persists both among the general population and healthcare professionals about this virus, sometimes leading to false alarms and causing more than just a few people to panic before it is necessary to do so. The first mistake we make is thinking that the human papillomavirus (HPV) is an issue that just affects females. This virus attacks both men and women equally through microtraumas that occur during sexual intercourse. Whether contact is oral, vaginal or anal, is all that is needed for this virus to be transmitted from one person to another is mucus and skin.
Currently, HPV is considered the most common sexually transmitted disease. Ana María Guevara Zambrano, OBGYN and colposcopist at the Pablo Tobón Uribe Hospital, states that 80% of sexually active couples will develop some manifestation of this virus at some point throughout their lives. But how can you identify it? This virus nearly always appears in the genital area, which is why initial symptoms appear there: genital warts, abnormal pap smears, pruritus (itchiness) and a bad odor.
Another important tidbit. Ninety percent of infections heal on their own without medical intervention. Some people will not even know they were ever infected because the virus is silent at first and does not show any symptoms. It can even take between five and ten years for the first symptoms to appear. The remaining 10% of infections can lead to precancerous lesions and cancer, “This depends on the individual’s immune system and the type of virus that was transmitted, depending on whether it is high or low risk,” Guevara clarifies. This disproves yet another myth: being infected with the virus does not mean that you have cancer, as it can take years for HPV to develop into cancer.
There are many strands of the virus
According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, there are more than 200 types of HPV, about 40 of which affect the genitals. Sexually transmitted HPV is divided into two categories: low-risk HPV (which causes genital warts), and high-risk HPV, which can cause different types of cancer (cervical cancer, anal cancer, oral and throat cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer and penile cancer).
As the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, “Most HPV infections go away within 2 to 3 years and do not cause cancer. Some HPV infections, however, can persist for many years. Those infections can lead to cell changes that, if not treated, may become cancerous.”
How can it be prevented from turning into cancer? For women, pap smears can detect changes in the cervix, which can later turn into cancer if they are undetected. HPV tests can also help diagnose the disease.
What about the vaccine?
Guevara states that despite the boom of adverse effects that have been attributed to the vaccine, this type of immunization does not represent a threat to those who receive it, “Before becoming sexually active, all girls should receive this vaccine as a method of prevention. It is important to clarify that just because you are administered the vaccine, does not mean that it will fight the virus or that you will never catch the virus. The vaccine can only provide a certain percentage of protection and the earlier it is administered, the more capable the immune system will be of producing antibodies that prevent an infection from developing.”
The FDA indicates that this vaccine was approved to be used on women between ages 9 and 26 to prevent cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers caused by HPV, as well as precancerous lesions. It was also approved to be used on men to prevent anal cancer, precancerous anal lesions and genital warts caused by HPV.
Getting vaccinated is a method of protection that of course has greater results when it is applied on populations that have yet to become sexually active.
A pap smear is a tool that can help detect the warning signs of HPV on women. Performing this exam regularly is a key method of prevention.