5 things everyone should know about HPV

[I wrote this a few weeks back for HPV Awareness Day, but it’s still totally relavent]

1) There are dozens of types of human papilloma virus (HPV). Some can cause ‘normal’ warts, some can cause genital warts, and sometimes they cause no symptoms at all, but in any case they are mostly harmless and almost everyone has had one or more strains of HPV.

2) Almost everyone who is sexually active will be exposed to a genital strain of HPV at some point in their life. Most will not develop warts and will clear the infection without ever knowing they had it.

3) In rare (but tragic and significant) cases, some strains of HPV can cause cancer, which is what makes HPV more than just a nuisance. Cervical cancer risk is almost entirely determined by exposure to certain strains of HPV, but only a small percentage of women who get HPV will go on to develop cancer or pre-cancerous lesions. If you get yearly pap smears, these lesions can usually be caught while still easily treatable. HPV can also cause anal cancer and some recent research appears to show that HPV it also cause throat cancer, though both of these are also rare.

4) HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. The only way to completely ensure that you don’t transmit genital strains of HPV is to not have any other person’s skin contact your skin anywhere near your genitals. That means you can be doing everything ‘right’ (condoms/monogamy/etc) to minimize risk, and still get/transmit HPV. In terms of HPV, and in general, there is no risk-free sex, only lower-risk sex.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have sex–there are certain levels of risk that are acceptable to take. There is no risk-free driving either, but most of us still drive.

5) There is a vaccine for the most dangerous (cancer causing) strains. It’s recommended for all girls to get it before they are sexually active–in early middle school, ideally. Many people are also choosing to get it for boys, which I agree with, but so far isn’t covered by most insurance. There is no reason not to get the vaccine. People who say that this vaccine means condoning sexual activity too young/before marriage and that therefore we shouldn’t give it are being willfully ignorant.  Getting your daughter or son this vaccine does not say to them “go have sex”. It says “I care about your health no matter what.”  And anyone who takes the view that cancer is a reasonable punishment for being sexually active is an asshole and has no business being a parent.

In summary: HPV really isn’t a big deal, except when it is. Therefore, we shouldn’t attach stigma to it or freak out about it; we should simply be aware of the harm it can cause and do our best to minimize that by screening and vaccinating.