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What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States. Over 50% of sexually active individuals in the U.S. will become infected with HPV in their lifetime. The CDC estimates that over 6 million Americans contract HPV yearly. There are over 100 strains of HPV, but most of these are harmless.
How is HPV transmitted?
HPV is transmitted by genital contact, not necessarily through sexual intercourse. Both men and women can become infected and transmit the disease to others without knowing they have it.
What are the symptoms?
HPV can cause anal and genital warts, pre-cancerous cervical changes, and cervical cancer. Rarely, HPV can progress to cancers of the vagina and anus. Most infected patients, however, have no symptoms at all.
How is HPV diagnosed?
There is a diagnostic test available to determine if HPV infection is present. It can detect many, but not all, HPV strains. Testing is not generally recommended in men as it is not felt to be medically necessary.
Is treatment available?
There is no specific medical treatment against the virus, but a person’s natural immunity often clears the infection. If HPV induces changes to the cervix, there are treatment options available to reduce the risk of the infection progressing to cervical cancer. Genital warts can be treated also.
Can HPV be prevented?
Yes. Sexually abstinent individuals will be completely protected. Sexually active people should avoid partners who have had multiple prior sexual contacts, although this can be difficult to determine. Monogamous relationships have lower risk of contracting all STDs including HPV. Condoms may provide partial protection against HPV, but this is not a failsafe method.
In addition, there is a highly effective vaccine available against 4 important strains of HPV. It is approved for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. There is no available vaccine for males at this time. Since vaccination does not protect women against all HPV strains, it is still important to undergo regular PAP smears to check for abnormal cells which may indicate HPV infection.
Do international travelers need to be vaccinated?
International travelers should be up to date on all routine vaccinations, in addition to any recommended or required travel vaccines. The CDC advises that HPV vaccination be considered for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. Females in this age group who will be traveling abroad should be up to date on all routine immunizations and should discuss the HPV vaccine with their physicians.