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HPV: Is your daughter at risk?

July 13, 2009|By NATALIE BRANDON

What do you call a condition that's widespread in humans and often symptom-free, yet can lead to cancer?

Dangerous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as one in four women are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), and the numbers are rising, especially among young women.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. There are more than 100 HPV types that can infect the genital area.

Some HPV types can cause genital warts. Other HPV types can cause cancer in the genital area. But most people who have HPV don't know it, because the virus often has no signs or symptoms. Because of this, the virus can spread without any parties involved becoming aware of its transmission.

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According to the CDC, about 20 million Americans are infected with HPV. Another 6.2 million Americans become infected each year. About 74 percent of new infections occur in 15- to 24-year-old men and women.

"It is very prevalent," said Diana Gaviria, Health Officer for the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Health Department. "We see women from their mid-teens up through their 30s being diagnosed, and I'd say that most of them are women in their teens and 20s."

As a nurse for the Allegany County (Md.) Health Department, Michelle Green also works for the sexually transmitted disease and immunization clinics. "It's always been a problem," she said. "There's just been recent awareness brought to the public."

The CDC predicts more than half of all sexually active men and women will become infected at some time in their lives.

"HPV is such a common virus that anyone who is sexually active can come in contact with it and become infected," Gaviria said.

According to CDC, HPV is only transmitted through sexual contact. However, intercourse is not necessary because it can be transmitted with any kind of genital contact with someone who has HPV. The virus is not found in bodily fluids.

But for people with more than one sexual partner, there is another prevention - a vaccine called Gardasil.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in females ages 9 to 26, Gardasil is the first recombinant vaccine developed to prevent the four strains of HPV that cause the most cases of HPV-related diseases in women. These are HPV-16 and -18, which are the cause of 70 percent of cervical cancer cases; and HPV-6 and -11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts cases.

And according to a 2007 report published in New England Journal of Medicine, Gardasil is nearly 100 percent effective in preventing precancerous cervical lesions caused by these four strains.

Gardasil is administered in three shots over six months. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends girls be vaccinated for HPV around 11 or 12 years of age, and complete the injections by age 18.

"Ideally, (health officials) would like for girls to be protected before they become sexually active," Gaviria said.

Experts say the best way to prevent the transmission of HPV is as simple as abstaining from sexual contact, or limiting sex to a single partner.

"We definitely encourage condom use (to prevent) sexually transmitted diseases, but they are not nearly as effective with preventing HPV infection," Gaviria said. "Because the Gardasil vaccine only works to prevent the four most prevalent types of the virus, abstinence is the only sure form of prevention."

For this reason, both Gaviria and Green feel it is imperative that women get screened for the virus during their annual physical examination. All HPV types that affect the genital area can cause abnormal Pap tests. There is no way of screening men for the virus.

"I think this is one of many sexually transmitted diseases that we are very concerned about," says Gaviria, "It is a big public health concern. No one is exempt."

For more information about HPV and Gardasil, go to www.cdc.gov/std/HPV.

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