What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is a virus often found in the genital tract. HPV is extremely common- 80 % of sexually active males and females will get infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime, and most people would not know that they ever had HPV. There are many different types of HPV, and some are riskier than others.
How does one contract HPV?
Anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV. Even if a person only has one sexual partner in their life, they can still get infected if their partner has had previous partners.
HPV is easily spread through sexual activity with a person who carries the virus. This includes vaginal, anal, or oral sex. That being said, HPV can be spread from one person to another just via skin-to-skin genital contact, it does not necessarily require penetrative sexual activity. Therefore, even with protected sexual intercourse with condoms, it is still possible to contract HPV.
What health problems does HPV cause?
Most individuals infected have no signs or symptoms and the virus may go away on its own after some time. However, for some, it can lead to problems such as genital warts and cancers. These issues may only develop years after contracting the virus.
Firstly, HPV infection is highly associated with cervical cancer- it is responsible for 99% of cervical cancer cases. In Singapore, cervical cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths in women aged 15 to 44 years old.
When the body’s immune system fails to clear a high-risk HPV type, the virus can cause normal cells to change into abnormal ones. Over time, the abnormal cells increase in number and grow out of control and gradually take over more healthy tissue to form cancer, which can spread deeper into the cervix and even to surrounding areas and other organs.
Similarly, HPV can also linger to affect the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oral cavity to cause cancers at these places.
HPV also accounts for more than 90 percent of genital warts – flesh coloured growths that develop around the genitals or anus. Although warts are often painless and not dangerous, they can sometimes cause discomfort or irritation and often require medications or minor procedures for removal.
How can I protect myself?
- Minimize the number of sexual partners
The more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk of getting HPV. If you have sex with someone who has many partners, that increases your risk, too. To lower your risk, limit the number of sex partners you have, and if possible, choose partners who have had few or no sex partners before you.
- Get vaccinated!
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Potentially more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV can be prevented by vaccination.Ideally, the vaccine should be administered before an individual becomes sexually active, therefore before any possible exposure to the virus from partners. However, those who are already sexually active would still benefit from the vaccine, as they may not have been exposed to all the virus subtypes covered by the vaccine.Studies have shown that there is long-term protection against diseases that are associated with HPV. After completing the full course of the vaccine, no further re-vaccination or booster shots are required, so you only need to get it sorted once in your life!
Females and even males can get vaccinated from the age of 9. Even though males cannot develop cervical cancer, they can still carry the virus and pass it to their female counterparts. In addition, the vaccine is also beneficial for males since they can be affected by warts, penile, anal, and oral cancers too.
Get screened for cervical cancer
Although the vaccination significantly lowers the risk of the above-mentioned diseases, ladies who have ever been sexually active should still undergo cervical cancer screening. Through regular screening, cervical diseases can be detected early and this allows for prompt intervention and good treatment outcomes.
Cervical cancer screening is done either through:
- Pap smear – to detect pre-cancerous changes / early cancer
- HPV testing – to identify women who are infected with HPV and are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer
- Or in some instances, both are performed in the same setting
Taking your HPV vaccination, together with regular cervical screening can help protect you against cervical cancer and HPV-related diseases. Speak to your Doctor about HPV today!