The human papillomavirus (HPV) has gotten a lot of attention in the news lately with the release of a vaccine to prevent four high-risk strains of the disease. But what exactly is HPV? And should you be concerned?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 million people in the United States are currently infected with HPV, making it the country’s most common sexually transmitted infection. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will acquire genital HPV during their lifetime, and at least 80 percent of women will have acquired the virus by age 50.
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, and approximately 30 strains of them are sexually transmitted. HPV lives in the skin or the mucous membranes and usually has no symptoms. However, some people may get visible genital warts, which usually appear as soft, moist, pink or flesh-colored swellings. They can be raised or flat, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower-shaped. They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, or on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. After sexual contact with an infected person, warts may appear within weeks or months. In addition, the virus can also cause precancerous cell changes in the cervix, vulva, anus, or penis.
The only sure way to avoid acquiring the virus is to abstain from all sexual activity. However, if you choose to be sexually active, try to maintain a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. It’s also important to use condoms consistently and correctly. While condoms are not 100 percent effective in preventing HPV since they do not cover the entire genital area, they can help reduce the risk of transmission. Women should also get annual pap tests, which can detect abnormal cell changes early so treatment can be provided before the cells turn cancerous.
If you find out that you have the virus, it’s important to remember that most sexually active people will have genital HPV at some point in their lives. For the majority of those people, it won’t cause any health problems at all. Although you might feel embarrassed or ashamed about having a sexually transmitted virus, it’s important to be open and honest with your partner or partners so they can make informed decisions about their own health.
Boston University provides information about HPV at Wellness and Residential Education, 19 Deerfield St., and at Student Health Services (SHS), 881 Commonwealth Ave. SHS offers Gardasil, the recently approved HPV vaccine for women. Students interested in the vaccine should call SHS at 617-353-3575.
Beth Grampetro is the health and wellness educator at the Office of Residence Life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.