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HPV Protection, Screening and Vaccination

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly occurring sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The disease encompasses over 200 different strains of the virus, which infect various internal and external bodily surfaces. The primary area HPV infects in women is the cervix.

“This is where HPV loves to hang out the most,” explains Emily LaSota, MD, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist on the Medical Staff at Southwest General. “The way we screen for HPV is to take a swab of the cervix, through a procedure called a Pap smear, which collects cells.

These cells are then studied under a microscope to determine if they’re abnormal. Additionally, within that same specimen, we can test to see if there's also HPV in the cervix—this is a procedure called co-testing.”

In more than 90 percent of abnormal Pap smears, HPV has been detected. However, there are different scenarios where an abnormal Pap smear does not necessarily mean HPV.

While there is no screening to identify HPV in men, they absolutely can be—and are—carriers of the virus.

HPV and Cancer Risk

HPV can lead to a number of different cancers in both male(s) and female(s). The cancer most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. Fortunately, the screening modalities in the U.S. have limited its occurrence. In other countries around the globe, where Pap smears are either not routine or inaccessible, prevalence of cervical cancer is much higher. HPV also can cause cancers of the vagina, the vulva and the penis—although they are considered rare.

Dr. LaSota notes that there has been an increase in the number of cancers of the head and neck caused by HPV, due to an overall increase in the number of sexual partners as well as the way people are having sex.

“HPV can transfer to the mouth during oral sex. It can infect the tongue, the mouth and the throat,” she notes.

Dr. LaSota also explains the two different kinds of cancer of the head and neck: HPV-associated and non-HPV-associated cancers. Non-HPV-associated cancers are more likely to be the cause of life-style choices, such as long-term smoking or alcohol use.

“For the first time recently, we’ve started to see HPV-associated cancers of the head and neck outnumbering the non-HPV-associated cancers. So, if that is a trend we’re seeing in society, it’s very, very important to be aware that if we prevent HPV infection, we can prevent these cancers,” she continues. “And, they are not fun cancers to get. Treatment is rather painful. People should be doing all they can to prevent HPV spread.”

Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones with the HPV Vaccine

The best line of prevention is receiving the HPV vaccine. Currently, the HPV vaccine is FDA approved for both males and females, aged 11-45. The earlier a person is vaccinated against HPV, the more robust their immune response will be in the future.

Of the approximate 40 strains that tend to infect the genital track, the current HPV vaccine covers nine of the most common.

“Getting the vaccine does not guarantee with 100 percent certainty a person will never get HPV, but it does protect against common strains, high-risk strains and strains that can lead to cancer,” says Dr. LaSota.

Parent Concerns: Addressing the Important Questions

Per Dr. LaSota, pediatricians should be asking parents if they would like their child to get the HPV vaccine around the age of 11 or 12. But, oftentimes, that recommendation is met with concern. Parents may not understand the commonality of HPV in the general population, which is very prevalent.

Additionally, some parents believe allowing the vaccine will send a message that kids can engage in “sex with no consequences.” However, kids who get the HPV vaccine are not more likely to have sex, have earlier sex or have more sexual partners than people who do not get the HPV vaccine.

“In general, teenagers usually don’t hold off from having sex because they fear HPV. The more real-world consequences they think of are other STDs—gonorrhea, chlamydia—and pregnancy. HPV does not encourage early sex. It does not encourage sexual promiscuity. It is essentially a cancer vaccine. And it is something I recommend across the board to all parents to talk to their pediatricians about, and, if appropriate to get that HPV vaccine for their children at an early age,” says Dr. LaSota.

Can HPV Just “Go Away”?

Some individuals who test positive for HPV can eventually “clear” the virus. The average time to do this is approximately 8 to 12 months. Unfortunately, it’s not yet known the type of person who will clear HPV versus someone who will harbor the infection chronically for years.

“We do know there are some things that make a person more likely not to clear it,” says Dr. LaSota. “For example, things that affect the immune system. So, people who smoke, people living with HIV, people who are on chronic steroids—these individuals are more likely to be unable to clear the virus and could potentially harbor it over long periods of time.”

Ultimately, the greatest protection—especially from a young age—is to get the HPV vaccine.

To learn more about Southwest General’s Women’s Health Services, visit www.swgeneral.com. To listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Dr. LaSota, follow this link: https://radiomd.com/swgeneral/item/43402