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What is HPV?

January 10 2020 | Written by Miranda van Haarlem (She/Her)

I can vividly remember getting pulled out of my seventh grade classroom with vaccination forms signed by my parents along with all the other girls in my class. We walked down to the library where multiple nurses awaited us. I remember knowing I was receiving a shot, and I was to receive another about six months later, but I was unaware of what the actual vaccination was for. Personally, I was never educated on what Human Papillomavirus (HPV) was before or even after receiving the vaccination. For all I knew, I could have been receiving the flu shot. I was even more confused as to why only girls were receiving the vaccination alongside me. I must not be the only one with this vivid memory of receiving the HPV vaccination or the only one that is lacking information surrounding HPV. With this blog post, I want to answer all the questions that I had when I was younger that my education system failed to teach me.

What is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is a sexuallity transmitted infection (STI) consisting of a group of double-stranded DNA viruses with more than 100 known serotypes. Most HPV infections are asymptomatic, and clear spontaneously without treatment. On the other hand, two strains of HPV (HPV 6 AND HPV 11) are responsible for 90% of all genital warts cases but these cases carry a low risk for invasive cancers. Additionally, two high-risk HPV strains (HPV 16 AND HPV 18), cause 70% of all cervical cancers. 

How common is HPV?

HPV is one of the most common Sexually Transmitted Infections as it is estimated that greater than 70% of sexually active Canadian individuals will have a sexually transmitted HPV infection at some point in their lives.

How is HPV spread? 

HPV is usually spread by having oral, vaginal, anal, or even skin-to-skin contact during sexual activities with an infected individual. It is important to remember that a majority of HPV cases are asymptomatic, meaning it can be passed even if an infected person has no signs or symptoms. 

Can HPV cause other health problems?

As mentioned above, most cases of HPV go away on their own and do not cause any other health problems. However, in instances when HPV does not go away on its own, it has the ability to cause further health problems such as genital warts and cancer

Genital warts can be large, small, singular or even in clumps. They can be raised or flat, and have been known to be shaped like a cauliflower. According to the European Guideline for the Management of Anogenital Warts, warts are usually the same colour as the surrounding skin and non-pigmented, but can sometimes present in different colours, ranging from pink to brown to white. If you think you may have genital warts, you should visit your healthcare provider. 

It is important to know that the strains of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the strains that can cause certain types of cancer. As mentioned above, two high-risk HPV strains (HPV 16 AND HPV 18), cause 70% of all cervical cancers. According to the World Health Organization:

“Infection with a high-risk type of HPV can lead to abnormal changes in the cells lining the cervix. These changes are called pre-cancerous growths (or lesions). If they do not heal or are not removed, they can develop into cancer. It takes years for these growths to develop into cervical cancer”. 

Regular STI testing is important to assess the risks earlier on in life. 

Can men get HPV?

Due to HPV’s relationship with cervical cancer, most of the information regarding the virus centers on cervix-having individuals, but all sexually-active individuals can in fact get HPV. As stated, you can get HPV through vaginal, anal and oral sex, any skin-to-skin contact with the genital area and even sharing sex toys. Therefore, individuals without a cervix can contract HPV. 

How is the HPV prevented? 

You can do multiple things to protect yourself from contracting HPV! 

  1. Get vaccinated! 

  2. If you are sexually active, use latex condoms This will lower your chances of contracting HPV - but remember that HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom. 

  3. If you have a cervix, get screened for cervical cancer. Routine screening for individuals starting at age 21 has the ability to prevent cervical cancer. 

Who should be vaccinated against HPV? 

The CDC recommends that all preteens at age 11–12 years receive the HPV vaccination. For more information, you can visit, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/public/index.html.

Is the HPV vaccine safe? 

Fun fact, all three vaccines given for HPV are among the safest and most tested vaccines ever licensed!

One of the most important aspects of STI education is the reduction of the stigma that comes along with contracting an STI. In order to properly educate our adolescent population, we must have open and honest conversations regarding sexual education. There has been strong evidence that comprehensive risk reduction programs can lead to a decrease in sexual risk behaviours, such as a lack of condom use. I can only hope that other young adults are given more education surrounding STI and the HPV vaccination than I was.

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