I was among a group of well-educated young men the other day and I was once again surprised to find out that all of them knew almost next to nothing about HPV, including the fact that at least half of them will have been infected with one or more genital strains at some time in their lives. Can someone please start educating our young men about this virus? Just because it’s not well-known for making your penis burn when you pee (gonnorhea or chlamydia) or producing open sores (herpes) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know about it– especially since it is the most sexually transmitted infection among young people.
Fact: HPV stands for Human papillomavirus, a member of a group of viruses that can cause changes in cells leading to abnormal cell growth. More than 100 strains have been identified; about 30 can be transmitted sexually. Of those transmitted sexually, some can cause visible genital warts and others can cause cervical cancer.
Fact: HPV is the most sexually transmitted infection among sexually active young people. Approximately 20 million people are infected with HPV and about 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire a genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. For women, that percentage rises to 80 percent by age 50.
Fact: approximately 10 of the 30 types of genital HPV types can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Cervical HPV infection becomes undetectable for most women (90 percent) within two years, but persistent infection with these high-risk types of HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the only cancer where 100 percent of cases are caused by a virus.
Fact: most people with HPV do not know they are infected. Aside from those strains that cause genital warts, HPV infections usually cause no visible symptoms. The virus lives in the skin or mucous membranes and it is usually spread through genital contact. Because there are no symptoms and most people do not know they are infected, most people do not know they are spreading the virus, especially since HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas whether or not they are protected by a latex condom.
Fact: for women, annual Pap tests are the key to early detection and treatment. Pap tests and, if necessary, colposcopy are used to detect and treat pre-cancerous and cancerous cells, preventing them from developing into life-threatening cervical cancer. Most women who develop invasive cervical cancer have not had regular cervical screening.
Fact: for men, aside from strains that cause genital warts, for the most part, HPV does not pose the same types of health risks that it poses for women. HPV has been linked to penile and anal cancers in men, but these are extremely rare, especially in men with healthy immune systems. However, men should be aware of HPV because of their role in transmitting the virus to their female sexual partners and the greater health risk it does pose to those partners.
That’s right– because at the end of the day, whatever the difference in health risks, men and women, among other combinations, come together to be sexual partners and any type of partnership, however fleeting, involves shared responsibility. Realistically, I don’t expect everyone to get tested constantly and, if found to test positive for HPV at some point, eliminate all genital contact until your body gets rid of it on its own (since eliminating all genital contact is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus and there is no “cure” for HPV infection). However, to all the men out there, even if it won’t make your dick fall off, please at least be aware of HPV. Certainly, you should be aware of HPV since some strains cause genital warts. For the other strains, especially those connected to cervical cancer, you’re lucky in that you’re just as responsible for transmitting it, but you won’t get sick from it– the least you can do is if your girlfriend or your wife ever comes home from the gynecologist and tells you that she’s tested positive for HPV, you’ll know what she’s talking about and what might be ahead.
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