Viruses have been around since creatures first walked the earth. In ancient Egyptian drawings of people, we can see the effects of the polio virus. The Greek poet Homer described rabid dogs in his writings. But the ancients knew nothing about viruses.
It was the 1890s when scientists first identified a distinctive pathogen that wasn’t bacterial. They used the term “virus” for the first time. Their discovery was the tobacco mosaic virus. In 1901, Walter Reed identified a human virus for the first time. It was the yellow fever virus.
We’ve learned a lot about viruses since then, but they still cause public health concerns. One challenge today is common misunderstandings about the benefits of vaccinations.
In my practice, I regularly see patients who misunderstand the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s a common virus. Each year about 14 million people, including teenagers, are infected by this virus. The CDC estimates more than 80 percent of sexually active women and men will be infected by an HPV virus during their lives.
HPV is a group of about 150 related viruses. These common viruses can transmit through oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the virus.
The virus can be transmitted even if the infected person shows no signs or symptoms. Symptoms may not develop for years after being infected. This can make it hard to determine when the infection occurred. For individuals in committed relationships, it’s entirely possible that an infection occurred well before the relationship began.
A majority of cases clear up or become dormant without treatment and without causing any health problems. A health care clinician can explain treatment for the small number of chronic cases.
Some types of HPV can result in genital warts, or condyloma — small growths or bumps around the anus, vulva or penis. Your health care clinician can discuss treatment options.
The HPV vaccine offers protection against 90 percent of the viruses that cause genital warts and 70 to 80 percent of high-risk HPV viruses that can cause cancer.
HPV vaccines cannot treat existing cases of HPV. None of the current HPV vaccines protect against all HPV types that can cause cancer. So, it’s important for women who are vaccinated to continue to have their cervical cancer screenings.
The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same type of HPV that can cause cancers.
The HPV vaccine is a good way to protect youngsters from the virus as they mature. I recommend all 11 to 12-year-olds — female and male — receive the vaccination.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggests a vaccination series can be started as early as age 9. The vaccine can be administered up to age 26.
Research and safety studies have verified the HPV vaccines’ safety:
●The vaccines are not infectious. They cannot cause an HPV infection.
●The vaccine does not cause cancer.
●Studies show those who receive the vaccine do not engage in earlier or riskier sexual behavior.
There is little risk of exposure to HPV before age 13, but the risk of exposure does increase after that.
We usually determine there’s an HPV infection when a Pap smear comes back positive for HPV. The patient may have noticed a condyloma caused by HPV.
If an HPV test is positive, it can represent an HPV reactivation in the patient or the partner. This does not need to be a cause for alarm.
If the test shows positive for a high-risk virus, ask your health care clinician about cancer screening options.
Today, we don’t have a way to determine which people with HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS) may be more susceptible to health problems HPV can cause. Researchers are looking into ways to screen for other cancers HPV can cause.
If you’d like more information about HPV or vaccinations for your family, schedule an appointment today.
We can help you find a qualified health care provider if you don’t already have one.
The CDC offers Vaccines for Children (VFC) to help provide vaccines for children age 18 and younger who are uninsured, Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native.