Like most guys, I’d never heard of the human papillomavirus (HPV) until quite recently and, to be honest, I’m still not quite sure how to pronounce it. Like most sexually-active guys, there’s a good chance that at some stage during my life I have or will contract HPV and not even know about it.
That’s a hell of a lot of ignorance considering that HPV is probably the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in circulation and also happens to be the primary cause of cervical cancer in women. A study published earlier this year in The Lancet, suggests that about half of all men on the American continent (North and South) may be infected with the virus and there is no reason to believe that the situation is significantly better in our neck of the woods. Surely that’s a good enough reason for responsible men like you and I to become more informed about HPV in order to learn how to protect ourselves and our sexual partners from its nastier consequences.
HPV is most commonly spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral and anal sex. There are more than 150 different strains or types of the virus. Most of them are benign, which is the reason why so many men get infected without even knowing about it.
Some strains cause genital warts and others, known as high-risk types such as HPV-16, are thought to be responsible for relatively uncommon cases of cancer of the head, neck, penis, anus and oral cavity in men. Among women, HPV is the biggest cause of cervical cancer, the second most common type of all female cancers.
Just in case you’re wondering, genital wards are small, single or multiple, fleshy, pinkish-white growths on the tip or shaft of the penis, testicles, scrotum, groin, thighs or anus. While the raised, flat, round or cauliflower-shaped bumps don’t usually hurt, they are extremely contagious and can spread to other parts of the body. Some of the symptoms for the cancers associated with HPV in men include lesions on the penis or in the mouth, throat or anus, as well as anal itching, bleeding or discharges.
So what can you do about HPV? Most HPV infections are naturally cleared by your body’s immune system within two years. Scientists have discovered, however, that women, especially as they get older, have a substantially greater capacity to rid themselves of the virus than men. Also, the most dangerous types of HPV are not cleared by the body but persist and lead to cancer. As long as you are infected with HPV you can transmit it to your sexual partners.
While condoms offer some protection against HPV, they are less effective than they are against many other STIs. In recent times vaccines have been shown to be quite effective in the prevention of genital warts as well as HPV transmission. There is an ongoing debate over the cost-effectiveness of treating young boys with anti-HPV vaccine, a practice that is already being promoted among girls and young women in the USA. So watch this space for further developments.
(Andrew Luyt, Health24, updated January 2013)