The Vaccine For HPV Infections in Women

Human papillomavirus (HPV)causes one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STD). HPV can infect the genital area of men and women including the skin of the penis, the vagina, cervix, or rectum. Most people who become infected with HPV will not have any symptoms.  Some of these viruses may cause abnormal PAP tests and may also lead to cancer of the cervix.  This article will discuss the incidence, diagnosis, and treatment of HPV.

Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection.

Some HPVs may cause genital warts. Genital warts are single or multiple growths or bumps that appear in the genital area. Genital warts usually appear as soft, moist, pink, or flesh-colored swellings, usually in the genital area. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower shaped. They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. After sexual contact with an infected person, warts may appear within weeks or months, or not at all.  Genital warts are diagnosed by visual inspection. Visible genital warts can be removed by medications the patient applies, or by removing the warts in the doctor’s office.

Most women are diagnosed with HPV on the basis of abnormal PAP tests. A PAP test is the primary cancer-screening tool for cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, many of which are related to HPV. Also, a specific test, HPV-DNA, is available to detect the virus in women. The results of HPV-DNA testing can help health care providers decide if further tests or treatment are necessary.

Approximately 1\3 of HPV viruses can lead, in rare cases, to development of cervical cancer.  Although only a small proportion of women have persistent infection, persistent infection with “high-risk” types of HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer.  Cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women worldwide.  About 10,520 American women will develop invasive cervical cancer and about 3,900 women will die from this disease. Most women who develop invasive cervical cancer have not had regular cervical cancer screening.  With early detection, cervical cancer is usually treatable.

A PAP test can detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix. Regular PAP testing and careful medical follow-up, with treatment if necessary, can help ensure that pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into life threatening cervical cancer. The PAP test is responsible for greatly reducing deaths from cervical cancer.

Currently, the only HPV vaccine approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration is Gardasil, which protects against some strains of HPV.  It is recommended that the vaccine be given to girls between 11 and 12 years of age, before they become sexually active. The vaccine, which consists of three shots totaling $360, protects against strains of the virus that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

There are no serious side effects from the vaccine.  The only problems noted were mild soreness around the site of the injection and occasionally, a slight temperature.

Bottom Line: HPV is a common virus that affects millions of American men and women.  The virus is responsible for some cases of cervical cancer.  Tests are available to identify which patients are likely to have the virus and which cases need to be treated.  A vaccine is available which can help prevent HPV infections if given to girls before they become sexually active.  See your physician for more information.

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