HPV: The Facts

L Moore | Sex Columnist
Gardasil, a vaccine for preventing certain types of human papillomavirus, is currently marketed to young women and girls. (Courtesy of Jan Cristian)

Gardasil, a vaccine for preventing certain types of human papillomavirus, is currently marketed to young women and girls. (Courtesy of Jan Cristian)

I grew up knowing all the facts about STDs. Before they became STIs, the most common STDs identified by my high school and middle school counselors were gonorrhea, chlamydia and genital herpes. HIV was a risk, too, as well as pubic lice (crabs), syphilis and even hepatitis C (all awareness made possible by celebrities Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee). Condom use for everything including hand jobs and oral sex was the only way to prevent these diseases when engaging in genital contact. Many diseases could be treated, but all could be prevented. STD testing was of course encouraged. Not once did I hear of any vaccinations or the mention of the phrase “human papillomavirus.”

Then all of a sudden, ads for Gardasil, a vaccine that prevents certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), began replacing ads for birth control pills like Yaz or Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo on the pages of my teen magazines (yes, I still read those). Instead of girls running through fields of well-arranged and color-coded hormone pills, mothers and daughters proclaimed the risk of cervical cancer between blue and burgundy borders.

These ad campaigns were launched in 2006, when Gardasil was approved for use on young girls. It was this vaccine and its implications (as well as advertising) that brought the reality of HPV to most sexually active people, even though the HPV virus itself was discovered in 1956 as a disease affecting skin and mucous membranes in humans. As it was studied more in depth, German researcher Harald zur Hausen found the link between HPV and many cervical cancers, which caused the development of a vaccine and subsequently an awareness of the potentially harmful disease. By this time, however, HPV was estimated to be the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, with 75-80 percent of sexually active American men and women contracting a genital HPV infection at some point in their life.

But what is HPV, really, and why is it now something that plagues us on television, on bulletin boards and in gynecological waiting rooms? A few facts are important. First, unless it is one of the two types of wart-causing HPV (6 and 11), there are no visible symptoms of HPV. There is also no administered test for HPV like there is for chlamydia or genital herpes. The only way to “tell” if you have HPV, unless you have contracted visible genital warts or are in an advanced stage of cancers caused by the virus, is through abnormal cervical cells on a Pap smear. There is no reliable test for HPV in males even though it is equally common in males and females. Furthermore, the only way to prevent this disease is to refrain completely from sexual contact. Since HPV can lurk on the skin, condoms will not be 100 percent effective in protecting one from the virus. Although most HPV infections clear up on their own within two years of contraction, the risk of contraction and long-term side effects still remains.

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