What You Need to know about HPV

New guidelines, issued in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urge vaccination against the human papilloma virus for all boys aged 11-12. Vaccination for girls aged 11-12 has been recommended since 2006. We offer this review of the facts about HPV to help parents make an informed decision for their children.

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is currently the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Approximately 20 million Americans are already infected with HPV and each year another 6 million become newly infected. It’s estimated that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives.

HPV used to be thought of simply as the cause of common skin and genital-area warts. In the late 1970s, however, studies began linking HPV infection to cervical cancer. These studies, which earned their author the Nobel Prize in Medicine, led to further research into the potential dangers of HPV infection. We now know that HPV is responsible for many of the cancers affecting the sexual organs and for oropharyngeal cancers, that is, cancer at the back of the throat, base of the tongue, or of the tonsils.

Signs and Symptoms 

Since most people with HPV do not experience noticeable symptoms or health problems, they are unaware that they have the infection, and unaware that they are transmitting it. In 90 percent of cases, the virus will be naturally cleared by the body’s immune system within about two years. However, when the HPV infection lingers, symptoms and health risks can develop.

Genital warts are the most noticeable symptom, and can appear within weeks or months of contact with an infected partner, even if he or she showed no signs. These warts are caused by a “low-risk” type of HPV, one that does not develop into cancer. Without treatment, some genital warts will go away, some will remain unchanged, while others will grow in size and number. It is not possible to predict the development of individual cases, and the longer genital warts go untreated, the more likely they are to return.

Health Risks

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. More than 50 percent of vulvar or vaginal cancer, and 95 percent of anal cancers are linked to HPV. A study published this January reveals that HPV is responsible for more oropharyngeal cancers than is tobacco use and estimates that”by 2020, there will be more HPV-positive oral cancers among men than cervical cancers among women in the US.”

Why Vaccinate ? 

There is currently no cure for HPV, just treatment for symptoms. The FDA has approved two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, both highly effective in preventing persistent infection with the “high-risk” HPV types that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and also effective with HPV-linked cancers at other sites. Gardasil, the only vaccine available to men, is also effective against the HPV types that cause nearly all (90 percent) of genital warts.

To be fully effective, the HPV vaccine must be given before any HPV infection. That’s why public health experts recommend it be given in the pre-teen years of 11 or 12.