HPV: A Formidable yet Tameable Foe

Can a seemingly innocuous lesion in the genital region lead to your death in a few years? Yes, yes it can. More so if you are a woman. Genital lesions are a sign of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which also sets the stage for about 90 percent cases of Cervical Cancer- a leading cause of death in women.

The Human Papillomavirus, a DNA virus having over 150 known types, is the most common sexually transmitted virus globally. In most cases, infections show no outward symptoms and resolve spontaneously. However, they persist in some and cause warts and precancerous lesions which may develop into full-fledged tumours.

HPV infections are most commonly spread by sustained direct skin-to-skin contact with vaginal and anal sex being the most common methods. Occasionally it can spread from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. It does not spread via common items like toilet seats. Increased risk of persistence of infection is seen in those with early age of first sexual intercourse, multiple partners, and smoking.

There are two common manifestations of HPV infection

  • Genital Warts:

Warts are skin infections caused by HPV. They have been well known even in ancient Greece and Rome, where they were given different names based on age, location, and texture.

In Roman period genital warts were referred to by the terms “ficus” meaning fig because of its resemblance of an open fig and “thymus” from the Greek thymion, because they looked like the leaves of the plant thyme

Warts are the most common type of sexually transmitted HPV infection and are seen as small, cauliflower-like outgrowths. These are highly contagious but benign and clear in a few months.

 

  • Cancer:

There are certain types of HPV (known as ‘high-risk HPVs’) with a tendency to cause persistent infections and these may lead to cancer. Sexual transmission of HPV can cause Vulvo-Vaginal, Penile, Anal or even Oral cancer. The most common form is Cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer has become very easy to detect, especially with the advent of the Pap Smear. This is a screening test wherein a sample of cervical cells are collected (in a procedure akin to a cheek swab) and examined for cancerous changes. In the case of unresolved suspicions, a biopsy can be done to give a concrete diagnosis. It is recommended that women undergo a Pap Smear once every three years from the age of 21 to 50 years and then once every five years until they turn 65.

 

There are vaccines available which protect against infections by some types of HPV, especially the high-risk types which cause cancer. These are given as two or three doses over a time of six months, depending on how old the person is. Vaccinating girls around the ages of nine to thirteen is typically recommended. The vaccine does not have any therapeutic effect on existing HPV infections or cervical lesions and is recommended primarily for those women who have not yet been exposed to HPV.

It is imperative to make people aware of the grave problems that HPV infections present. Every girl should be taught the importance of screening and vaccination right from adolescence. This, along with educating sexually active people about the use of protection will go a long way in combating the spread of this infection.

Delve deeper into our series on STD Awareness.

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