HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is a group of viruses that can cause several diseases. While some strains are mild and go away on their own, other forms can cause genital warts and several types of cancer. In fact, an estimated 300,000 women die from HPV-caused cervical cancer every year.
What Does HPV Cause?
HPV commonly affects the cervical lining and genital area on both men and women. HPV can cause genital warts. Other strains of the virus can cause cervical cancer and other cancers related to the reproductive system. Some forms of HPV can even cause cancers of the head and neck.
How Is HPV Contracted?
HPV is transmitted through genital contact. It’s often transmitted during sex but can be contracted other ways. HPV often goes undiagnosed because most strains are undetectable. Many times, an infected person doesn’t know he or she has HPV. Most women don’t find out they have HPV until they have abnormal Pap smear results.
Do Pap Smears Diagnose Cancer?
The Pap test is very effective at screening for cervical cancer. By scraping cells from the lining of the cervix, a doctor can tell if there are changes at a molecular level that can be indicative of cervical cancer. However, the test will not detect cancer anywhere outside of the cervix.
How Does the HPV Vaccine Protect Against Cancer?
The HPV vaccines offer the best protection against the disease. Though regular Pap smears help in the diagnosis of cervical cancer, they are not always 100% accurate. Furthermore, the time it takes from contraction of HPV to the development of cervical cancer can be as long as several decades. So although HPV is most prevalent in teenagers and young adults, often it does not develop into cancer until age 40-50. Getting vaccinated at a young age can protect against some of the most dangerous forms of HPV.
There are two vaccines, and both protect against the strains that cause 70% of cervical cancers. One of the vaccines, Gardasil, also protects against strains that cause 90% of genital warts. The vaccine can be given to people between the ages of 11-26 and is recommended regardless of if a person is sexually active or not. Women who are vaccinated should still participate in regular Pap smears, as the vaccine does not protect against all forms of HPV, and it does not protect against any other STDs.
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