Sensible Advice about HPV

How the most common sexually transmitted infection became a leading cancer killer.

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If you want to point a finger at factors that cause cancer, viruses don't immediately come to mind as a leading perpetrator. But, after environmental and lifestyle factors, infectious diseases are a leading cause of cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a prime suspect.

HPV is one of the most ubiquitous of all cancer-causing viral infections. It has a particular affinity for cells on the skin and in mucous membranes where they affect the cell's genetic instructions and can make them behave badly.  Most of the time HPV is booted out by the body’s immune system, but sometimes the virus can cause some of your cells to transform into benign, precancerous or cancerous tumors.

Certain HPV types have been implicated in a growing list of cancers that affect both men and women, most notably cervical cancer.  If estimations are correct, 80% of men and women have been exposed to HPV before the age of 50; HPV infection has enormous public health implications that cannot be ignored.

How do HPV infections affect the body?

There are 100 different types of HPV and more than 30 are considered sexually transmitted infections. HPV can cause a range of diseases affecting the throat, larynx, tonsils, mouth, penis, vagina, cervix and anus. Some types are more likely to cause cancer (high-risk) and some never will (low-risk). Low-risk HPV types are responsible for external skin growths such as common, flat or plantar warts on hands and feet, and venereal warts (condyloma), in or on the vagina, penis and anus.

What makes HPV infections dangerous?

High-risk HPV types are more inclined to cause cancer, but not always and not necessarily right away. Seemingly harmless infections acquired during adolescence and young adulthood can linger for decades, assaulting cells repeatedly over time, sometimes developing into cancer, sometimes not. There are 15 high-risk HPV types that cause cervical cancer; 70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV types 16 and 18 alone.