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What is High Risk HPV?

High-risk HPV refers to the HPV strains that carry a greater probability of leading to more serious conditions. There are some HPV strains that have a proven association with cervical cancer in women. Other strains of HPV are thought to lead to different types of cancer. Scientists have divided the different strains of HPV into two groups – those that are less likely to lead to cancer and those that are more likely to be precursors to cancer. So, high-risk HPV are most likely precursors to cancer; low-risk HPV are those strains that have not been shown to have a link to cancer.

Two high-risk HPV strains, notably HPV-16 and -18, are now known to be a present in nearly all cases of cervical cancer, which affects around 500,000 women worldwide every year. Close to 250,000 women die from cervical cancer every year. The greatest risk factor for women, as regards to cervical cancer, is having persistent, long-term, high-risk HPV. These strains of HPV are listed among other strains that are classified as STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).

Ongoing scientific research is suggesting that high-risk HPV strains may also be a factor in other cancers – of the vulva, vagina, anus in women and penis, scrotum and anus in men, as well cancer of the throat. To date, 14 HPV strains have been identified as being possibly linked to these cancers. None of these strains create any visible symptoms, whereas other HPV strains that are also classified as STDs may produce genital warts in some people. There is no link between genital warts and precancerous cell abnormalities.

Low-risk HPV strains include those that cause common warts, usually found on the hands, especially in children, with the typical raised 'cauliflower' appearance; plantar warts that grow inwards on the soles of the feet; and flat warts that usually appear on the face. While these warts may look unsightly and be uncomfortable, they are not dangerous and have not been linked with any type of cancer or other serious disease.

The high-risk strains of HPV affect the cells of the genital area they infect, causing changes and abnormalities to these cells. These abnormal cells will not always progress to cancer but in some cases they do. The time frame, from infection with high-risk HPV to evidence of cervical cancer, is many years, often ten years or longer. This is why women who are most at risk are those who have had these HPV strains for a prolonged period of time.

It is important to realize that having a high-risk HPV infection does not mean you have cancer; around 90% of HPV infections go away on their own, forced out by your own immune system, without causing any health problems. Only 20% of women infected with the high-risk strains will develop cancer.

As with so many diseases, including cancer, early diagnosis presents the best opportunity for a successful outcome. This is why it is so important for women to have regular Pap tests from a few years after they become sexually active. Women over the age of 30 are also advised to have an HPV test included with the Pap test, as both tests can be done using the same sample of cells. While a Pap test does not detect the presence of HPV it does show any changes or abnormalities to the cells which could be caused by the virus. The HPV test is not yet available for men.

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