HPV, otherwise known as the human papillomavirus, is a leading cause of cervical cancer in women. Clearly, this is an important issue, but to be honest it’s not my area of expertise. Therefore, I asked my good friend Gale Johnson, Coordinator of the Wisconsin Well Woman Program to provide the Straight Talk. The Center for Disease Control reports that there are approximately 12,000 new cervical cancer cases each year in the United States. Cervical cancer causes around 4,000 deaths in women each year in the United States. What many people may not understand is that this virus can also cause cancer in the vulvar area, vagina, penis, tongue, tonsils and throat. Furthermore, genital warts in men and women are caused by HPV. Women need to understand the HPV virus and take a proactive approach in helping to prevent these cancers caused by HPV.
How Is HPV Transmitted?
Skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity (vaginal, anal or oral) spreads HPV. One of the main problems with this virus is that a person may not have symptoms and unintentionally spreads it to his or her sexual partners. The United States Office of Womens Health (OWH) reported “About 20 million Americans ages 15 to 49 currently have HPV. And at least half of all sexually active men and women get genital HPV at some time in their lives.” Doctors do not have a specific treatment for HPV unless you have genital warts. Fortunately, both females and males now have a vaccine that can help inhibit the spread of HPV.
Vaccinations Can Help Inhibit the Transmission of HPV
Two vaccines have been approved by the FDA for use in the prevention of HPV. There are over 40 different types of HPV. The Cervarix and Gardasil vaccines are both effective in preventing diseases caused by HPV 16 and HPV 18. HPV 16 and 18 are the two types of the virus that cause the most cervical cancers. Gardasil has been used to prevent HPV 6 and HPV 11 which cause genital warts. The Gardasil vaccine is now available for males. Gardasil has demonstrated protection against pre-cancers of the vulva, vagina, and anus. The vaccines are given to the patient in a 3 dose series. One vaccine is given, the second dose is two months later and the third dose is given six months after the first dose. The vaccines work by causing the body’s immune system to fire up its antibody production process. These antibodies will help defeat the virus if the body is exposed to the virus later in life.
Receiving the vaccine before a teenager begins to have sexual relations is stressed. Take note that the vaccines help prevent the disease, consequently, the vaccine will not treat an existing HPV infection.
What Can You Do To Help Prevent HPV?
- In order to lower the risk of contracting HPV, females and males should use protection (condoms) with sexual partners. Limiting sexual partners is encouraged.
- Vaccines to prevent HPV can be given to females, usually between the ages of 11 and 12. But if a female did not receive the vaccine when she was young, a doctor may give the vaccine up to age 26.
- Males should receive their vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12 and may be given the vaccine up to age 26 at the doctor’s request.
- Females should have a regular Pap test to screen for cervical cancer.
Screening for Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs if cells begin to grow uncontrolled on the cervix. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include abnormal bleeding from the vagina, pain during sex or bloody vaginal discharge. Many women do not have any of these symptoms therefore a screening for cancer is vital. A Pap test is the main screening given by health care providers that can determine if there are changes in your cervix. If the cervix changes are found early the odds of surviving cervical cancer increases. It is important to discuss your health with your doctor and follow your doctor’s recommendations for screenings. The American Cancer Society has endorsed these guidelines for cervical cancer screenings:
- Women should begin cervical cancer screenings at age 21.
- Women between the ages 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years.
- Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years.
- Women over age 65 who have had normal Pap tests should not be tested for cervical cancer.
- Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still have the Pap screenings recommended for their age group.
Take The Necessary Steps to Stay Healthy!
I encourage you to have a regular check-up that includes a pelvic exam and a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer. Discuss HPV vaccine options for yourself (depending on your age) and your teen- aged children with your health care provider. Don’t forget to call your health care provider if you have any abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge or have other concerns about your health.
Because it all begins with a healthy woman…
Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection of diseases that affect women the most; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit wwhf.org or call 1-800-448-5148.