Globally, one sexually transmitted infection rules them all in terms of prevalence: Human Papillomavirus or HPV. Lovingly nicknamed “the common cold of STIs,” nearly every sexually active individual comes into contact with HPV at some point in their lives.
Luckily, 90 percent of bodies work HPV out of their systems in eight to 13 months, but HPV can also hide for years without detection or symptoms. In fact, most people who have HPV are unaware of their status.
HPV might also lie dormant for years before one develops symptoms. This timeline makes it difficult to ascertain when the infection was passed along or who may have shared the virus. Fortunately, most HPV infections are harmless.
Media focus on HPV as the cause of cervical cancer, along with initial recommendations to only vaccinate girls against the infection, have framed HPV as an STI exclusively among those with vaginas.
Most countries only fund HPV vaccines for “females” (their binary language, not mine), but many have approved the shot for “males”— except for Australia, which funds the HPV vaccine for teenage boys. People of all genders and sexualities, however, can carry or exhibit symptoms of HPV. Today, all genders are recommended to receive the HPV vaccine.
Passing Along HPV
Typically, individuals pass HPV along via prolonged and direct skin-to-skin contact. Vaginal and anal sex are the most common routes, though HPV may be passed along through oral sex or from a mother to her baby in rare cases.
Risk of testing positive for persistent HPV infections automatically increases if one smokes cigarettes or has a compromised immune system. Even when folks display no signs or symptoms of HPV, they can still pass the infection along to their partners.
Using condoms lowers risk of HPV transmission significantly, but it remains far from perfect. Partners pass HPV along by means of skin contact, and condoms do not cover the entirety of skin vulnerable to HPV infection. Common items such as toilet seats and hot tubs do not have the capacity to pass along HPV.
Among over 170 strains of HPV, two types exist: “low-risk” and “high-risk.” Low-risk HPV causes warts located both on genitals and other parts of the body, while high-risk HPV results in precancerous lesions. These lesions increase risk of cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and throat.
Indeed, HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Despite these undesirable results, most people feel perfectly fine even once HPV begins to cause cell changes in the body. Remember that most cases of HPV are asymptomatic and work themselves out of the body within a year. Also keep in mind that STIs present no greater misfortune than other infections — negative public perception of HPV arises purely from the stigma our society attaches to sexuality.
Testing and Treatment
Though doctors rarely perform HPV tests, they do conduct cervical testing in order to check for abnormal cells that accompany cervical cancer. People with vaginas can get a Pap smear, in which a doctor takes a peek at the cervix and scrapes a few cells off of its surface for testing. Research studies currently in the process of developing testing for general screening prove difficult, since testing is generally inconclusive and considered medically unnecessary.
Doctors will, however, freeze warts off. In spite of HPV’s habit of clearing to undetectable levels, these screening procedures routinely save lives, at least in the developed world. In 2012, about 85 percent of HPV cases occurred in the developing world. The West is privileged enough to enjoy technology and medicine that hasn’t yet reached many communities all over the world.
Unlike most other STIs, folks fortunate enough to have access to affordable health care can protect themselves against HPV by getting vaccinated. Vaccines currently available protect primarily against cancer-causing strains of HPV. The most powerful vaccine available is Gardasil 9, which protects against nine types of cancer-causing HPV. People of all genders have potential to carry HPV and should get vaccinated as soon as possible. Studies show that the vaccine is more effective in younger kids than in older teenagers.
The vaccines are delivered in three shots spaced out over six months and can be obtained from any healthcare provider: Gardasil is covered under most insurance. Those with SHIP insurance at University of Wisconsin can visit University Health Services for the shot, but without insurance the vaccine costs approximately $150 per shot. Individuals without any insurance can visit Dane County Health Department for a shot free of charge, but they must prove Madison residence.
It is so rare that we have a vaccine for an STI — something concrete to protect against such stigmatized and misunderstood health issues. Yet people neglect to take advantage of this opportunity, believing the shot to be too troublesome or unnecessary given their gender. In the fight against HPV, we have a solid weapon for once — so get vaccinated.