Many people will encounter HPV (otherwise known as the human papillomavirus) at some time in their lives, but there are many misunderstandings as to the actual nature of the virus. HPV is actually very common, with over 100 different kinds of the virus, and it can be contracted and passed on to others by both men and women.
There are a number of types of HPV that are much more high risk and have been linked to cancers, such as cervical cancer and others. The National Health Service says that infection with one of those high risk HPV strains is responsible for as much as 99.7 percent of all cases of cervical cancer. However, it is important to keep in mind that the great majority of infections of HPV result in no problems at all, and are quickly dealt with by the body’s own immune system.
Commonality, symptoms and treatment
HPV is incredibly common, with eight out of every ten people contracting the virus in some form during their lifetime. HPV spreads via skin on skin contact, usually through sexual activity, as it lives on the skin as well as in the body’s moist membranes such as the anus, cervix, throat and mouth. The HPV type that is responsible for causing cervical cancer, genital HPV, is passed on through skin contact with the genitals, such as by anal, vaginal and oral sex, the sharing of sex toys and even touching. There are usually no observable symptoms when people contract the HPV infection.
Cervical abnormalities are screened for in women during smear tests, and if any alterations in their cervical cells are observed, they are invited to a further appointment, during which a microscope will be used by a nurse to examine the cervix more closely. Over the course of the next two years new cervical screening tests are set to be rolled out across England, Wales and Scotland that will be much more accurate. These will see women tested for the high risk strain of HPV first, followed by the cervical abnormalities screening.
Some women do decide to pay for a self sampling HPV test which can be done in private, but this is not included in the NHS programme. The best method to ensure that women are protected from the development of cervical abnormalities or cancer is to attend scheduled smear tests. There are no reliable tests currently available for men, but girls from the ages of 12 through to 18 can receive a vaccination against a number of kinds of HPV linked to cancer development via the NHS. However, some have called for teenage boys also to be able to receive vaccination, as a number of cancers in men have also been linked to the virus. A trial programme is being run in some areas of the country by Public Health England for gay or bisexual men up to 45 years of age, allowing them to receive the vaccination for HPV from a number of sexual health clinics free of charge.
There is no actual treatment available (or necessary) for HPV infections as they are naturally cleared by the human body. Treatment may be required by those who have had the infection if it has resulted in the creation of abnormal cells, or possibly even cancer. Smear tests offer the best protection from the prospect of cervical cancer, due to the fact that they are able to identify abnormal cells prior to a high risk HPV infection causing the development of cancer.
How infectious is it?
The great majority of people who have a normal immune system will eventually not test positive for high risk HPV. Four out of ten people will be able to get rid of it within just one year of infection, and most will do so within two years. However, in some cases it is possible for the virus to remain dormant in the human body for years, potentially even several decades. Because of the potential dormancy it can be hard to judge which sexual partner the virus may originally have been contracted from, and it is up to the individual to decide whether or not to tell any of their former, current or future partners about their HPV infection.