What is HPV? (An Overview)
HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus; it is one of the
papillomavirus group of viruses that can infect humans.
Around 200 of the identified strains of HPV actually
cause no symptoms in people; some are the cause of warts
on the skin, called verrucae, while there are others
that can lead to certain cancers including cancer of
the penis and anus in men and of the vagina, cervix,
vulva and anus in women.
Of the large number of types of HPV, over 30 are classified
as sexually transmitted diseases, able to be spread
through any sexual contact, not just sexual intercourse.
Many of these HPV infections cause no long-term problems
and usually disappear on their own within a year or
two. However, ongoing infection with one of the 'high
risk' strains of HPV is known to lead to pre-cancerous
lesions and even to invasive cancers. Infection with
human papillomavirus has been identified in the vast
majority of cervical cancer cases.
The significance between HPV and cancer was first proposed
by Stephan Jablonska from Poland in 1972. This was then
confirmed in 1978 by Jablonska and Orth when they identified
HPV-5 in a case of skin cancer. In 1983, zur Hausen
confirmed his theory that HPV was implicated in cervical
cancer when he discovered HPV-16 and -18 in cases of
cervical cancer. HPV has been estimated by scientists as the most prevalent
sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S. as well
as in many other Western countries. Most sexually-active
women and men are likely to contract HPV at some stage,
whether they experience any symptoms or not. Statistics
from the American Social Health Association indicate
that nearly 80% of sexually-active citizens will acquire
HPV in their lives.
Over 80% of American women will
be infected with a minimum of one type of genital human
papillomavirus before that age of 50. Of the different
STDs that were studied in research in 2000, genital
HPV was the infection that was the most common. In the
same year, nearly 75% of people who were infected with
HPV were aged 15 to 24 years.
Research into the occurrence of HPV in the general
population can appear inconsistent. This is because
of the various parameters used by the researchers –
some study different strains of the virus, others look
only at people who have experienced symptoms while others
only study HPV in women.
The highest prevalence of infection
with HPV is in the 20 to 24 year age bracket, for both
the high risk and the low risk strains. The occurrence
of HPV appears to decrease with age, possibly due to
the body's immune system dealing with the virus. It
has been shown recently by the Albert Einstein College
of Medicine that the virus is frequently cleared by
the body when the person has an immune system that functions
Many people who contract HPV experience no symptoms
at all and are unaware that they have it. The most common
HPV symptom, and the one that is the most recognized,
is the appearance of warts in the genital or anal region.
Many of the known strains of HPV cause genital warts
but HPV 6 and HPV 11 are responsible for around 90%
of the cases with these symptoms.
The strains that cause
cervical cancer do not usually cause genital warts,
but it is possible for patients to be infected with
more than one strain of HPV at any time. People can
transmit the virus without having any genital or anal
The immune system frequently deals with an infection
of HPV and clears it from the body. There is currently
no treatment or cure for HPV, but there are certain
tests that detect the virus in women, the most common
being the Pap test. There is no test for men at this
Two vaccines have been developed that prevent
women contracting HPV16 and HPV18, the two strains that
cause cervical cancer. These vaccines, Gardasil and
Cervarix, are only effective if the woman has not ever
been infected with these strains of HPV.
Education remains the most effective preventative measure
against HPV at this time, so that women understand the
importance of the HPV vaccine as well as the necessity
of having an annual Pap test. All sexually active people
need to be aware of how this virus is transmitted and
teens and pre-teens need to be educated in the various
ways the virus can be contracted and spread.