HPV otherwise known as human papilloma virus is a family of viruses with more than 100 strains.
Some strains of the virus cause the warts we sometimes get on our fingers or legs. Other strains of the virus are responsible for genital warts.
More importantly, some strains of HPV are known to cause cancers such as cervical and penile cancer. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by exposure to HPV
How do I get HPV?
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
HPV lives in the skin and on skin surfaces. Infection can occur at the time of the first sexual encounter. As long as there is any skin-to-skin contact with an infected person there is the chance of transmission of the virus.
This means that you can develop HPV:
• If you are a virgin.
• Without exchanging body fluids.
• If you use a condom.
• It is transmitted by any type of skin to skin contact with an infected person.
How common is HPV?
HPV is the most common STD. Most sexually active people have been exposed to the virus but in most instances it is asymptomatic – meaning that there are no symptoms. You often do not know that you have been infected unless you develop genital warts or abnormal changes on the cervix.
What are the risk factors?
A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood that you will develop a disease. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will develop that disease.
Risk factors for HPV are:
• Having more than one sexual partner in a lifetime.
• Having partners who have had multiple sexual partners.
• Oral contraceptive use
• Increasing age
Signs and symptoms that you may notice are:
• Genital Warts. These are small flat or round bumps on, around and inside the sex organs of men and women.
• Cell Changes. You often will not know of these cell changes until you go to the doctor. Changes in the cells of the cervix can be detected by a Pap smear.
Is there a test for HPV?
There is a test for HPV. For women this test can be done when they are getting a Pap smear.
The HPV test can tell if you are infected with HPV are not. If you are infected, it cannot tell what strain of the virus you are infected with.
How can I reduce my risk?
You can reduce your risk of getting HPV by:
• Not having any part of your skin touching another person’s genitalia.
• Not having sexual intercourse.
• Having sex with only one partner who has had sex only with you.
• You may also be able to reduce your risk by getting vaccinated against HPV.
What is the HPV vaccine?
This is a newly approved vaccine that offers protection against four strains of HPV – the two strains that cause the most cases of genital warts and the two that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers.
The vaccine is approved for females between the ages of nine and 26 years. It works best in women who have not yet had sexual intercourse or any form of genital touching. In other words it works best in women who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to the virus.
What will the vaccine do?
The vaccine available now will:
• Protect against genital warts in previously uninfected women as a result of exposure to two specific strains of the virus.
• Protect previously uninfected women against cervical cancer caused by two specific strains of the virus.
• It is known that this protection will last for a minimum of five years. At this time it is not known if a booster shot will be required.
The vaccine will not:
• Prevent all strains of HPV developing.
• Prevent all cases of genital warts or cervical cancer
• Prevent against other sexually transmitted diseases.
The vaccine is not an anti-cancer vaccine. It is a vaccine against the human papillomavirus. The vaccine prevents disease and does not promote sexual intercourse.
Is the vaccine safe?
You cannot develop HPV from the vaccine. There are minimal side effects and these are short-term. They include local injection site pain and low-grade fever.
The vaccine is not recommended to women who are pregnant or may be pregnant.
How is the vaccine given?
The vaccine is given in three doses over a six month period. All three doses need to be given in order to receive the maximum benefit.
It is given to young women between the ages of 11 and 26 years, preferably before the onset of sexual initiation.
If you are between the ages of 11 and 26 you should still receive the vaccine. It is unlikely that you will be infected with all 4 strains of the virus that the vaccine protects against. You will therefore still get some benefit from the vaccine.
How can I get the vaccine?
You may be able to get the vaccine from your doctor or gynecologist. You will also be able to get the vaccination from the Women’s Health Clinic at the Cayman Islands Hospital.
The total cost for the series of vaccinations is not yet known. It is expected that it will cost about $360.
What if I cannot afford the vaccine?
The Cayman Islands Cancer Society in conjunction with the Public Health Department will be holding special clinics. Call 949-7618 for more information.
If you are under the age of 18 you will need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian who will need to sign an informed consent form giving permission for you to have the vaccinations.
If you are over the age of 18 you will need to sign the informed consent form yourself.