Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
What is HPV?
HPV or, more commonly, genital warts is a sexually transmitted virus affecting the skin in/on/around the genitals. There are approximately 100 known strains, 15 of which are known to carry a risk of causing cancerous changes to cells in the cervix. It is thought that up to 90% of the sexually active are carriers of the HPV virus at some point in their lives. There is evidence to suggest that most people clear the virus from their system within 2-3 years, though information suggests it is a permanent infection a lot of this is based upon subjective evidence found in case studies. Some subjects have been shown to clear the virus, of which some were shown to be carriers some years later. It is not known whether this was a repeat infection or a dormant stage, what is clear, though, is that a lot of the information out there is being presented as fact when, at this moment, there is a lot left to be understood about the virus.
Contraction/Symptoms/Treatment of HPV.
The most common way to catch HPV is to engage in unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse with a carrier, as it passes through the bodily fluids (in male pre-ejactuate/ejaculate and normal female vaginal fluids), other sexual activity carries risks but only if there are visible warts on the genitals and they come in to contact with your own genitals or you touch the warts and then touch your genitals. This is less likely to occur than during penetrative sex, though sometimes the warts are too small to see at a glance, or hidden internally.
Most people with HPV are unaware as it is often symptomless, those who do experience symptoms give varied accounts. They range from external symptoms: such as an itchy pimply rash, burning or localized tenderness and anything from one wart, several warts, itching warts to non-itching warts to internal symptoms: such as bleeding after intercourse, abnormal discharge and, rarely bleeding or urinary obstruction if the wart is on/in the urethra.
Unless you are experiencing symptoms, your GUM clinic will not test you for HPV as it involves a blood test which is an unnecessary financial drain on the NHS. The treatment available depends upon the symptoms, sometimes it can be as simple as applying a chemical solution (Unless pregnant) or freezing external warts of (cryosurgery). Internal warts sometimes require surgery (a colposcopy) or, in a small number or cases, a biopsy of the cervical tissue.
How to prevent/cope with infection.
Unless you know and trust the person you are sleeping with and, through the use of an STI test or otherwise you should always use a condom. However, this is not always effective as many have reported warts appearing at the base of the penis or becoming infected still. The current publicity surrounding HPV has meant that a lot of people are now fearful of the STD and the known risks, the truth is that 90% of people with HPV are infected with the two most common strains HPV-6 and HPV-11, neither of which are known to cause cancerous cell changes. If you have HPV or you suspect you might or even if you don't know, have no symptoms and are worrying yourself senseless about getting cancer... there are a few important things you need to know.
Cervical Cancer and the HPV vaccine.
99% of Cervical cancers are HPV related. It takes, on average 10 to 15 years for HPV altered cells to turn cancerous. Considering that women start going for Cervical Smear Tests at 23/25, you would have to have been infected before the age of 13/15 to be at risk of slipping through the screening net. The fact that people generally ARE sexually active at a younger age these days is one of the main reasons for the new vaccination. Reducing the age for smear tests is considered far less cost effective than introducing a vaccine as, under the age of 23/25, the cervix is still developping and smears under this age often come back with "abnormal" cell changes. An "abnormal" result requires further smear testing and, sometimes, colposcopies to determine whether or not the cells need to be removed or monitored. In a young woman of under 23/25 this is unnecessary 99% of the time, it causes needless worrying/upset and would cost the NHS a lot in time and resources.
Regular smears (every 3-5 years in the UK) are imperative for any woman, no woman should ever develop cervical cancer if she went for every smear and followed the advice of doctors to have abnormal cells monitored or removed. Always attend these appointments. The 3,500 cases of women with cervical cancer you hear about every year are almost exclusively women who missed two or more smears. The amount of women who do not go for any is shocking. Going to every single one means that changes are caught early and the, very very rarely, missed changes are spotted. You will be informed by your GP when it is time for your smear. You have to be registered with a GP for this to happen.
If cervical cancer is caught in the first stage, the survival rate is up to 99% and as much as 70% in the second stage. For those who are worrying, sufferers are very symptomatic. Symptoms include painful sex, bleeding after sex, bleeding between periods, agonizing abdominal pains and an awful lot of discomfort in day to day life. It is not something you would be unaware of.
The HPV vaccine.
This jab is available for 12/13 year old girls in schools with a catch up jab available for girls up to 18 at their local doctor's practice. The Jab protects against 2 of the 15 strains associated with cancer, HPV-16 and HPV-18. This means that 3 in every 10 women given the jab will not be protected so going for smear tests is still imperative. The idea the jab completely immunises women from cervical cancer is, sadly a myth.
It is your right to refuse or request the jab, and for those who are over 18 and not sexually active it can be worth a trip to your GP to find out more. There have been several concerns expressed about the safety of the jab and implications for future promiscuity. For young girls who are looking to have this done in school but are unsure, I recommend going to your GP with a parent and asking them any questions you might have.
You can read more on sexual health here