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HPV: The sexual virus you probably already have

January 16, 2018

Researchers estimate that nearly every sexually active male and female will at some point during their lives, play host to a sexually transmitted illness that can cause everything from genital warts and cervical cancer to neck and oral cancer. The good news is that in 80-90% of cases, the virus will clear up on its own within two years.

Human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of almost all cervical cancers, affects more than 79 million Americans. And while condoms are somewhat effective at preventing the illness, they aren’t a guarantee since the virus can infect areas not covered by a condom. Luckily, two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, offer more protection against most of the most harmful HPV strains. Both vaccines can be given to females age 9-26, while Gardasil can be given to males age 9-26.

“The goal is to reach these kids long before they become sexually active and exposed to HPV,” says SIU Medicine OB-GYN Assaad Semaan, MD. “Additionally, the vaccines produce a higher immune response in preteens than it does it older teens and young women.”

The vaccines involve series of 2-3 shots given in a six month period. Adolescents under the age of 15 only require two shots, while young adults 15-26 should receieve three.

In addition to receiving an HPV vaccine, physicians urge women to schedule the appropriate screenings. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women undergo a Pap test every three years beginning at age 21. At age 30, women should schedule both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. Women with certain risk factors may need to have more frequent screenings or continue screening beyond age 65.

As many as 93% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented by cervical screenings and the HPV vaccine, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more on HPV and what SIU Medicine is doing to move cancer prevention forward, check out Aspects.