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What is The Connection Between HPV and Cervical Cancer?

HPV is the most prevalent of all the Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States; it is thought that over 70% of all men and women will have the virus at some point in their lives. There is a connection between HPV and cervical cancer – the human papillomavirus has been shown to be present in nearly every case of cervical cancer. It is now believed that HPV is the cause of 93% of all cervical cancer.

Of the multiple HPV strains, few produce any symptoms; of these, not all people who are infected will get the symptoms. This makes it difficult to slow the spread of the virus because people can be carriers without being aware of it. It is believed that most people will be infected with one or more strains of HPV during their life but the majority of these infections will go away on their own. A strong immune system will successfully remove the virus from the body.

The most common HPV symptom is warts, both the type that kids get on their hands and genital warts which are caused by more contagious HPV strains. Not all strains of HPV will produce genital warts, nor will every infected person will have them. Genital warts are not linked to cervical cancer – they are the symptom of different HPV strains than those that are precursors to cervical cancer. However, it is possible to be infected with more than one strain of HPV at a time and so the presence of genital warts does not necessarily mean you won't get cancer.

The HPV strains that are linked with cervical cancer are HPV-16 and -18 but there are also strains that have been linked to other cancers including vaginal, anal and penile. Being infected with HPV-16 or -18 does not mean you will develop cervical cancer; it just means that you have been infected with a type of HPV that may cause pre-cancerous abnormalities in the cells of the cervix. These abnormalities may or may not develop into cancer.

HPV can be diagnosed with an HPV test. The HPV test is similar to the Pap test in the way the cells of the cervix are collected and sent for analysis at a pathology laboratory. When the cells are examined under a microscope, small changes or abnormalities can be detected and then analyzed to see if HPV or some other virus is present. The type of HPV can also be determined.

Sometimes the abnormalities are picked up during a regular Pap test and then another test may be ordered for HPV. If one of the precursors for cervical cancer is found, there are treatment options which your doctor will discuss with you. Early diagnosis is the key to a successful outcome and this is why all women over the age of 30 are advised to ask that an HPV test be added to their regular Pap smear; both tests can be performed on the same sample.

If you get a positive result from your HPV test, there is not need to panic; remember you have the virus, not the cancer necessarily. Your immune system may well be able to deal with the viral infection and get rid of it from your body; the majority of HPV infections do not develop into cervical cancer. The test may indicate pre-cancerous abnormalities called dysplasia, which is not cancer.

Cervical dysplasia can progress to CIS or carcinoma in situ, a more serious form of dysplasia, which affects the outer layer of cells. CIS is able to be treated and cured in around 95% of cases. Cervical cancer occurs when the cancer cells invade the underlying tissue. Dysplasia often regresses over a period of time, but scientist have not yet discovered why or how this happens.

It is hoped that the new cervical cancer vaccinations, which are targeted at the HPV strains that lead to cervical cancer and other genital cancers, will drastically reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer.

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