(BPT) - Four out of five women are likely to be infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV, at some point in their lives, although most will never know it. Using a condom won't always prevent it. And it's the cause of virtually every case of cervical cancer. Yet a woman who finds out she has an HPV infection is not likely to tell even her closest friends.
Why? Because as an STD, HPV has a social stigma attached to it. But it’s important to talk about it. Cervical cancer is highly preventable - and knowing your HPV status can help you identify your risk. And there’s really no good reason to stay silent, because having HPV is a lot more normal than you may think.
The virus is common and usually harmless. Roughly 6 million new cases of HPV occur in the United States each year - and most infections clear up on their own.
Having HPV does not mean a person has had lots of partners. Unless they are vaccinated, most sexually active women will get HPV. Naturally, having multiple partners - or having a partner who has had multiple partners - increases the risk. But in a study of women with just one partner, 50 percent had HPV infections three years into their monogamous relationships. Bottom line? HPV doesn't tell you anything about a person except that they're normal.
Nor does having HPV mean a person has been unfaithful. A diagnosis of HPV today doesn't mean it was contracted yesterday. Or last month. Or even last year. HPV can hide out in a person's system for years or decades before developing into changes in cervical cells. Stories abound of couples married for 10 or 20 years who find themselves upended by HPV. It is impossible to know when and where HPV was contracted, so it's best not to jump to relationship-rattling conclusions.
In fact, HPV doesn't even require sex to spread. Because it can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, the virus can be contracted while using a condom or without having intercourse. Contact with the hands and oral sex can also spread the infection.
There can even be a stigma associated with giving adolescents an HPV vaccination because it suggests that they are about to have sex. But an HPV vaccine isn't about sex - it's about cancer. The idea is to get children vaccinated well in advance of their first sexual encounter, which, for some kids, can be age 13. Antibody responses are also highest between the ages of 9 and 15, making the vaccine most effective in that window. Current vaccines, which are recommended for young girls and boys, protect against the four HPV types that are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. If more people got vaccinated, cervical cancer might go the way of polio or smallpox.
Despite the stigma, HPV cannot be ignored. While most infections go away on their own, some infections with specific types of HPV can persist and develop into cervical cancer over years or even decades. Over 99 percent of cervical cancers are caused by persistent infection by a high-risk type of HPV. Fortunately, new HPV tests allow your health care provider to determine whether you have a high-risk HPV type at very early stages, when treatment is most effective.
Women who are concerned about the cost of an HPV test should know that annual well-woman visits and certain preventive care services are required to be covered by many insurance providers without a co-pay or deductible under the Affordable Care Act. For non-grandfathered plans, this applies to any new plan year that began after Aug. 1, 2012. This coverage requirement extends to HPV co-testing with a Pap test for women ages 30 to 65 as well.
So there are many good reasons for women to talk about HPV and schedule their annual OB/GYN exam if they haven’t done so yet. More information about HPV co-testing and knowing a woman’s risk for cervical cancer is available at www.Facebook.com/PreventCervicalCancer.