HPV 101

November 17, 2006

Thanks to Mercks new vaccine, HPV is the talk of the town. Nationally, 1 in 5 people have HPV, and that statistic rings true for the Brandeis community as well. Here is a quick reference guide to help protect you and your partners from this common affliction.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for the Human Papilloma Virus, also known as genital warts. There are more than 60 different strains of the virus. Some have symptoms (usually warts), and some do not. Some strains are known to cause cervical cancer in women. Currently, over 40 million Americans have HPV, and every year a million more are infected.

How is HPV transmitted?

HPV can be transmitted through oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex. It is passed both through sexual fluids and, like herpes, through skin-to-skin contact. The presence of warts certainly increases the risk of skin-to-skin transmission, especially since warts can appear in places a condom cant cover. Because it often has no symptoms, HPV is often passed along without anyone realizing they are infected.

How is it treated?

If the HPV presents as warts, the warts can be removed in a doctors office. Some believe this will permanently get rid of the virus, since it is localized in the warts that are removed. However, there is no proof that this is true. Most believe that HPV is treatable, but not curable, and the virus may stay in your system for life.

How can I get tested?

HPV can be tested for in a standard STD test for women. Many physicians administer these, and many hospitals and clinics offer free and confidential testing. Some even offer anonymous testing. Also, the health center offers STD testing and PAP smears. An HPV test is often included in a routine PAP smear. To best protect yourself from cervical cancer, it is recommended that all women get a PAP smear once a year.

Unfortunately, there is no test for HPV in men. The only way to know for sure if a man has HPV is if he has visible warts. If you do have warts, or bumps that might be warts, a doctor can check them out. Still, be extra careful because even if you do not have any symptoms, you could still be a carrier of HPV.

How can I protect my partners and myself?

Always use protection. In this case, barrier methods are key because they prevent both fluid transmission and skin-to-skin transmission. Even if both partners already have HPV, protection should still be used so that you do not infect each other with different strains of the virus, which could increase their symptoms or risk of cancer. Also, try the Reality condom, designed for both vaginal and anal sex. This polyurethane condom is designed to give you more protection by covering more skin area. Finally, avoid sexual contact if you or your partner has a breakout.

A new option has been developed for women. Merck has released GARDASIL, a new vaccine that protects women from contracting HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. According to the Merck website, HPV Types 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancer cases, and HPV Types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts cases. The vaccine does not protect you from getting HPV, but it will protect you from getting some of the most dangerous strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is given in 3 shots over 6 months. The cost ranges from about $130 to $150 per shot. A second version of the vaccine, which protects against more strains of the virus, is currently being developed. Once that vaccine has been approved, the health center plans to carry it for the Brandeis community.

If you have any questions you would like answered in this column, email them to ssis@brandeis.edu. All questions will be kept confidential and published anonymously.

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