So, I am a 47 year old woman and I have had an STD!
Saying that out loud makes me feel like I’m a villain in the old Batman show. Then I remember that an estimated 80% of the adult population in this country at any given time have had HPV, and I am one of them. Many of you reading this have had or will have HPV in your lifetime. HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. About 14 million new genital HPV infections occur each year. Because in many people there are no symptoms, most of us do not give HPV a second thought. But we should.
Why? You may ask. Because HPV leads to several different types of cancer and genital warts. Human papillomaviruses are a group of more than 200 related viruses. 40 HPV types can be easily spread through direct sexual contact, from the skin and mucous membranes of infected people to the skin and mucous membranes of their partners. They can be spread by vaginal, anal and oral sex. HPV is the main culprit of 91% of cervical, 75% of vaginal, and 70% of throat cancers diagnosed in the US.
HPV can be prevented with a vaccine. If you are between 9 and 26 years of age, there is a vaccine that will protect you from some of the high and low-risk strains of the infection. People who are not sexually active almost never develop genital HPV infections. Also, HPV vaccination before sexual activity can reduce the risk of infection by certain HPV types targeted by the vaccine: 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
But what about those of us who are older than 26? Well, there are a few things that we must remember. First, you have not done anything wrong just because you have HPV. Most sexually active people have been exposed at some point, though most of us are unaware and show no symptoms. It just means that you have been exposed to one of the most common viruses around. It also does not mean that your current partner is the one that you contracted it from. Remember that it can stay in your system for 36 months, and there are studies that show that it may be possible for latent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in older women to reactivate. Also, very few cases of “high-risk” HPV will lead to cervical cancer. In some cases, HPV may cause cell changes that persist for years, and the cells can eventually become cancerous if not detected in time. But, regular screening (such as Pap tests) can almost always find abnormal cells so they can be treated, if needed, before cancer occurs.
So, remember it boils down to common sense. Don’t blame yourself because protecting yourself from HPV is not easy. Even if you used a condom, you can pass and contract HPV with skin-to-skin contact. Correct and consistent condom use does reduce HPV transmission between sexual partners. Also, do not blame the person in your life for a new HPV diagnosis, because the incubation period between the initially exposed and when it shows up in your system can range between one month and multiple years. Always have your annual screenings, even if you have had a hysterectomy, because there is vaginal and vulvar cancer risk for us women. So, to all of us out there, both male and female: do everything to protect yourself and talk about HPV with those you care about. Because Prevention is Key.
To learn more about the HPV Vaccine, visit our page for the National AHEC Organization HPV Immunization Project.
About the Author: Andrea “Andee” Peaten
Andrea “Andee” Peaten is The Community Immunization Liaison and HPV Ambassador Program Consultant in Pinellas County. She has been training for 20 years in the areas of Benefits and Dangers of Social Networking, The Importance of Your Culture and most recently Immunizations education. In recent years she has been working in the area of adolescent and childhood immunizations in an effort to increase the vaccination rates in the state of Florida. During her time in Immunizations, she has developed an Immunization Report Card for Pinellas County Schools, assisted in the creation of PITCH, created an assessment tool to help decrease the number of out of compliance students in Pinellas County schools and created the HPV ambassador program.