February 25, 2007

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Canada and is the number one cause of cervical cancer in women. Surprised? If you have never heard of HPV before, you’re not alone. In a recent survey of 523 high school students in Toronto, 87% were not aware of the HPV virus or the symptoms it might cause.

In the past six months, media coverage of HPV has increased dramatically since Health Canada approved Gardasil, the first vaccine to protect against HPV and a major breakthrough in the fight against cervical cancer. Here are some important facts you need to know…

What is HPV?

HPV stands for the Human papilloma virus, a highly contagious STI with no medical cure (not to be confused with HIV, which can cause AIDS). More than 100 types of HPV have been identified, including some ‘high-risk’ types that cause 99% of cervical cancers (as well as other genital and anal cancers), and some ‘low-risk’ types, which can cause genital warts.

Most people with an HPV infection don’t know it, as there are often no signs or symptoms, and the virus will go away with the help of the body’s immune system. Persistent HPV infections, however, can lead to more serious consequences, such as the beginning stages of cancer.

 

Did You Know?
: Approximately 75% of sexually active Canadians are infected with HPV at least once in their lifetime, with the highest rates of infection occurring in those under the age of 25.

How can I protect myself from HPV?

HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has an HPV infection. Apart from abstaining from all sexual activity, there are several ways to reduce your risk of getting the HPV virus.

1) Using condoms can lower the risk of getting HPV, although it does not guarantee total protection since the condom may not completely cover the infected area (e.g., the scrotum).

2) Reducing your number of sexual partners can also limit your exposure to HPV.

3) For females, regular Pap smear tests (starting as soon as one become sexually active) can detect abnormal cell changes in the cervix caused by an HPV infection and prevent the infection from progressing into cervical cancer.

4) Obtaining the HPV Vaccine (Gardasil) can protect against the two most common ‘high-risk’ types (HPV 16 and 18) responsible for 70% of cervical cancers, as well as the two most common ‘low-risk’ types (HPV 6 and 11) responsible for 90% of genital warts (and a second HPV vaccine Cervarix should be approved early next year).

Did You Know: Since introducing widespread pap testing in Canada in the 1960s, the incidence of cervical cancer has been reduced by 80% to about 1,400 new cases each year.

How do I get the HPV Vaccine?

Currently, the Gardasil vaccine is only available for females 9-26 years of age, however, studies are currently underway to evaluate the benefits of the vaccine for males.

Ideally, the HPV vaccine should be given before girls become sexually active and exposed to HPV, however females who are currently sexually active (with no previous HPV infections) will also benefit from the vaccine.

The vaccine consists of a series of three doses given at 0, 2, and 6 months. Currently, the HPV vaccine is $450, however, most health insurance plans should cover this cost.

Did You Know: Clinical trials of the HPV vaccine in >20,000 women around the world indicate that it is safe, with no serious side effects, and is 100% effective in preventing HPV infection for at least five years (after which a booster shot might be required).

If you are interested in getting the HPV vaccine, talk to your parents or family doctor and visit the websites below. And keep in mind, the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV or other STIs, so practice safe sex and continue with regular Pap tests.

Learn More!

HPV Info for Teens

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: HPV Infection

Health Canada: HPV

Gardasil Info

Sexuality and U

References:

Dell, D. L., Chen, H., Ahmad, F., & Steward, D. E. (2000). Knowledge about Human Papillomavirus among adolescents. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 96, 653-656.

Frazer, I. H., Cox, J. T., Mayeaux, E. D., Franco, E. L., Moscicki, A., Palefsky, J. M., et al. (2006). Advances in prevention of cervical cancer and other human papillomavirus-related diseases. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 25, S65-S81.

Siddiqui, M. A. & Perry, C. M. (2006). Human Papillomavirus quadrivalent (types 6, 11, 16, 18) recombinant vaccine (Gardasil?). Drugs, 66, 1263-1271.

Karen Willoughby is a recently HPV-vaccinated PhD student at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto studying the development of memory and associated brain structures in typically-developing children and children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Karen’s interests include international volunteering (in Romania, Jamaica, Tanzania, and New Orleans), knitting, and playing cranium.

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