* Above: HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18 have been related to the cases of disease in Europe
WHAT IS HPV?
You may have heard of it as the 'HPV virus'. HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus.
HPV is a highly contagious virus which affects the skin and moist membranes of the body such as the cervix, anus, mouth and throat.
HOW IS HPV TRANSMITTED?
HPV is spread primarily through skin-to-skin contact. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and it is estimated that 80% of people will have at least one type of HPV at some point in their lifetime. You do not have to have sexual intercourse to catch HPV. The virus can be transmitted through touching or genital to genital contact, oral or anal sex. There is even evidence to suggest that deep kissing can spread HPV.
The majority of people infected by HPV will not experience any health issues, but if the virus does not resolve, it can lead to some serious diseases.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF HPV?
HPV does not have any symptoms, so you may not know if you have it. It will likely only become apparent following a diagnosis with a HPV-related cancer, or genital warts.
WHEN DID I CATCH HPV?
It is impossible to tell when someone became infected with HPV. The virus can lay dormant in one's body for many years, and because of this is it is difficult to determine from which sexual partner one contracted the infection. It may well have resulted from one single sexual incident. One misconception is that once people discover they have a HPV-related cancer they assume that their partner has been unfaithful, or had many partners. This is not true.
IS HPV CURABLE?
There is no cure for HPV, and in the vast majority of cases infections will be cleared by your immune system and not turn into genital warts, precancer or cancer. The majority of HPV infections will clear a few months after infection. Around 90% clear within two years.
Women should attend their cervical cancer screening sessions in order to help prevent against cervical cancer.
Unfortunately there are no routine screening guidelines for men and the cancers caused by HPV. If an individual notices any changes on his genitals or anus such as growths, blisters, warts or other skin abnormalities, they should consult their doctor/physician immediately.
Using condoms can help reduce the risk of spreading HPV but these do not cover the whole genital area. The HPV vaccine is the best means to protect against HPV-related cancers and diseases.
DOES HPV CAUSE CANCER?
HPV is the causal agent of around 5% of all cancers worldwide, along with genital warts and laryngeal papillomas.
There are around 200 strains of HPV. Of those strains, around 13 carry the ability to cause cancer. The strains which are most associated with HPV-related cancers are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
Many people are aware that HPV causes cervical cancer in women, however this is not the full story. High-risk strains of HPV can result in HPV-related cancers of the anus, cervix, head & neck, penis, vagina and vulva. Rates of anal, penile and head & neck cancer in men are rising dramatically.
For those unfortunate, HPV lies dormant in their bodies and resurfaces as an HPV-related cancer decades later. HPV can be classified as either low-risk or high-risk. Low-risk strains of HPV may manifest as genital warts. High-risk strains may turn into cancer. Researchers believe that it can take from 10 to 20 years, or even longer for a new infection with high-risk HPV to develop into cancer.
HPV is the causal agent of:
70% of oropharyngeal cancers (head & neck)
91% of anal cancers
91% of cervical cancers
63% of penile cancers
75% of vaginal cancers
70% of vulva cancers
HPV can also cause recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). RRP is passed from mother to child during childbirth and manifests in the child as warts in the throat.
Indivudals with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk for HPV infection and more vulnerable to HPV progressing into precancer and cancer. Smoking may also increase this risk.
WHAT IS THE HPV VACCINE?
Vaccination against HPV is key in order to prevent HPV-related cancers. Both boys and girls should be vaccinated.
The HPV vaccine protects against the most common cancer-causing strains of HPV, and the strains which cause genital warts. The younger a person is vaccinated, the more effective the vaccine. This is because a person who is vaccinated at a younger age has a higher immune response, as well as a higher likelihood they have not already been exposed to the virus.
In the UK, both boys and girls aged 12 -13 (Year 8) can receive the HPV vaccine (girls have been vaccinated since 2008, boys were only added to the programme in September 2019, following the successful work of HPV Action, a coalition co-founded by NOMAN).
In the USA, boys and girls under 26 are recommended to receive the HPV vaccine. Routine vaccination is recommended at the ages of 11 or 12 during their pre-teen check-up, but the vaccination series can begin as young as 9. Find out more via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unvaccinated adults should consult their doctor about the benefits of vaccination as although they will likely have been exposed to HPV, there will still be benefit to immunisation.
Typically, the vaccine is given to adolescent children in a 2 dose schedule. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland are changing to a one dose schedule from September 2023. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that one dose is shown to be just as effective as two doses at providing protection from HPV infection.
IS THE HPV VACCINE SAFE?
HPV vaccinations are very safe and are closely monitored by organisations such as the European Medicines Agency and World Health Organisation.
The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS) considers HPV vaccines to be extremely safe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) regularly reviews the safety of the HPV vaccine, most recently in 2019. In the UK, NHS researchers looked at studies of 73,428 girls and women who received the HPV vaccine and concluded it was safe and effective.
WHICH COUNTRIES VACCINATE BOYS AS WELL AS GIRLS?
An increasing number of countries are now recommending vaccinating boys, including Australia, Austria, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland. In the USA, we successfully advocated for the vaccine approval for males, but vaccine rates are still below 50%. As of September 2019, both boys and girls aged 12/13 in the UK are eligible to be vaccinated (girls have been vaccinated since 2008).
"A gender-neutral virus needs a gender-neutral vaccine."
We are campaigning to introduce global, gender-neutral vaccination to protect all children from the devastating carcinogen, HPV. While successful vaccination programmes for girls have been initiated in many countries, much less has been done to vaccinate males. We believe that vaccinating females only is inadequate, discriminatory, and fails to acknowledge that men must be included in policy in order to significantly decrease HPV-related cancers. Our current focus is advocating for the extension of HPV vaccination programmes in Europe to protect both boys and girls on the continent.
By taking action now, we have the power to stop an epidemic while reducing the economic and social burdens of treatment for cancer and genital warts. The world has used vaccines to eradicate many infectious diseases such as smallpox and polio–it is time that we add HPV and the devastation it causes to the list.
This is the greatest opportunity we've had to prevent cancer in decades.
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