Ask most people to name a sexually transmitted disease and the responses you will get are gonorrhoea, AIDS, herpes, hepatitis, syphilis or perhaps chlamydia. Few people will answer Human Papilloma Virus, yet HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world.
HPV is a common group of viruses, some of which are relatively harmless and cause the common wart. Others strains are sexually transmitted and are potentially life threatening, especially those that lead to the development of cancer. Cancers attributed to HPV include those of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and oral cavities (mouth area). The virus is spread through skin-to-skin contact with or without sexual intercourse or the transfer of body fluids.
Most humans who have had sexual contact with another human will probably have been infected at some point in their life. Many of those infected are between the ages of 15 to 24 years old. The majority of people are unaware that they have been infected because there are often no signs of infection and the body’s immune system is able to rid the body of the infection.
Abstinence from any type of sexual contact is the surest way to reduce your risk of developing the disease, as is limiting the number of sexual partners you have over the course of a lifetime. The more partners you have and the more partners they have had the greater your risk. Condom use, while it can reduce risk, does not eliminate risk. Although HPV affects both men and women, only women can be screened for a current HPV infection.
In recent years vaccines have been developed against the two most common high-risk (cancer causing), sexually transmitted, strains of the virus including the ones that cause 70 per cent of all cases of cervical cancer.
The vaccines have been embraced by most medical professionals, with a global study showing that over 90 per cent of physicians surveyed agree it should be administered.
Many countries have introduced programs to vaccinate young women. While in the majority of countries it is not mandatory, young women have access to the vaccine with parental consent. In some countries, the vaccines have also been approved for use in boys although provision has not been made to include males in national immunisation programs.
The vaccines are preventative so in order for them to be effective they need to be given before a young woman has had any opportunity for sexual contact with another person. The recommended age in the United States is between 11 and 12 years.
Many parents are reluctant to vaccinate their daughters at such an early age against a sexually transmitted disease, believing that their child will not engage in sexual behavior for many years to come. However, a study in the July issue of Pediatrics found that women who were sexually active as adolescents were just as likely as those who weren’t to get HPV as adults.
The Cayman Islands Cancer Society encourages all parents of female children, especially between the ages of 9 and 18 years and all women under the age of 26 to discuss the HPV vaccine with their physician.
For more information on HPV and the vaccine contact the Cayman Islands Cancer Society at 949-7618 or email [email protected]