Did you know that there are over 170 of HPV (human papillomavirus), more than 40 of which can be spread via sexual contact? HPV isn't rare, either — people all over the globe get infected all the time, and in 2012 alone, 528,000 new infections were confirmed and an estimated 266,000 people died from causes related to a HPV infection. HPV is also the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, with more than 10,000 new cases each year.
The shocking thing? Nearly everyone who is engages in sexual activity will be infected, and high-risk infections account for about half of all cases.
Though HPV is usually spontaneously cleared out of the organism within two years, and the symptoms are negligible or even nonexistent, the infection persists and causes a bunch of complications — including cancer — in some people. Thankfully, a vaccine is now available to protect people from the most dangerous kinds plus the kinds that cause most genital warts.
In the United States and many other countries, the HPV vaccine is now recommended for all boys and girls, usually starting when they're 11 or 12 years old. Some parents, however, have concerns about this potentially life-saving vaccine. They may have worries about the vaccine's safety, especially because it's still relatively new, or believe it has the potential to cause infertility. Parents may also object for moral reasons, thinking the HPV vaccine might promote promiscuity, or think the shot "against cervical cancer" is pointless for boys — who obviously don't have a cervix.
HPV may cause no symptoms — allowing infected people to spread it without even knowing
Over 40 types of HPV cause genital infections, and while many of those cause genital warts, those kinds aren't associated with cancer. Some types of HPV can cause an infection within the larynx and other parts of the respiratory tract. While some types of HPV aren't dangerous, others are highly malignant — meaning they cause cancer in a large percentage of cases. The tricky part is that over 90 percent of infections present no symptoms, and people often don't know that they're infected.
HPV doesn't just cause cervical cancer, and isn't just a threat to girls and women
The most noteworthy complication of a HPV infection is cancer. Studies suggest that 99 percent of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV. Don't think that this means only girls need to be vaccinated, though. Not only can males spread the infection to female sexual partners, they are at risk of cancer as well.
HPV can also lead to:
- Penile cancer
- A number of different head and neck cancers
- Anal cancer
- Vaginal and vulvar cancer
The kinds of HPV that cause genital infections aren't just spread through sex
Many parents, especially from conservative families, will believe that abstinence is a sure-fire way to prevent a HPV infection — but though that helps, it's not necessarily true.
HPV is transmitted via direct contact. Depending on the type, it can be spread via skin contact, but we're mostly concerned with those types that cause genital infections. Penetrative sex is the most common, but not the only, route of transmission. Aside from the genitals, the mouth and the anus can get infected this way as well.
Other, less common ways of getting an infection include sharing personal care objects such as razors, transmission from an infected mother to her child, and via contact with non-sterile gynecology equipment. That means your child can, now or in future, be infected even if they don't have sex.
Mind you, sex is a very human activity, and nearly everyone with a body will engage at some point. Even if your child waits until marriage and only ever has one partner, there's no guarantee that that one partner doesn't already have HPV going into the relationship. And, you may sincerely hope your teenager won't be sexually active for a long time, but if they are, wouldn't you prefer they don't get cancer from it?
Vaccination offers the best protection against HPV
People who don't want HPV — and that should be everyone — can take a range of steps to minimize their risk.
- Sexual abstinence significantly lowers the risk of the HPV, but viral DNA has been found even in people who never had sex before, as there are other ways of transmission as well.
- Condoms can also lower the risk of an infection, but they aren't 100 percent protective, and there's always a small risk, especially because the virus can infect body parts other than genitals, and the condom doesn't cover those parts.
- The vaccine is your best bet. Several different types of the vaccine are available, with two, four, and nine different types of the virus.
With the help of the vaccine, up to 70 percent of cervical cancers can be prevented. Since this virus can cause other types of cancers as well, it is estimated that up to 80 percent of anal cancer, 60 percent of vaginal cancer and 40 percent of vulvar cancer can be prevented.
The vaccine is administered routinely in 71 countries, at least for girls. The primary focus is on girls aged 9 to 14. If the person is younger than 15, two doses of the vaccine are administered, with a six month interval between them. Three doses are needed if the person is older than 15.
Vaccination is recommended for everybody up until the age of 26. Most people will already have come into contact with the virus by the age of 26, but not necessarily the most dangerous one. Vaccines can be administered up until the age of 45, but the benefit is lower than in younger people.
The HPV vaccine is safe
All medications, including vaccines, are tested extensively before they hit the market. The HPV shot, which has been on the market since 2006, is no exception — but its efficacy and safety are still continuously monitored. Over 270 million doses of HPV vaccines have been dispensed so far, including more than 100 million in the United States alone, and research continues to show that the vaccine isn't just effective, but also very safe. It has not been shown to lead to infertility in any way.
HPV vaccine prevents cancer
HPV is a silent killer. In nine out of 10 cases, the disease shows no symptoms. And even if it does, the symptoms might show up only years after the infection.
Virtually every case of cervical cancer is caused by a HPV infection. To make things worse, there no test can conclusively show whether somebody is infected.