With the focus on HIV/Aids, we tend to forget about all the other bugs that crawl around between the sheets. And some of these STIs, such as genital herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV), are really nasty, and have no cure.
These infections may cause physical and emotional discomfort, gravely inhibit your sex life, impede your chances of natural childbirth (or any form of childbirth) and, in the case of HPV, may even be deadly.
Many STIs often are symptomless, so unknowing cross-infection is a very real threat.
This week is Sexually Transmitted Infections Week, so it’s the perfect opportunity to brush up on your knowledge. We're starting with human papillomavirus, or HPV, which we now know is linked to cervical cancer – and about which there is some very exciting news.
More about HPV
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and is very contagious. The most common way to get HPV is by skin-to-skin contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has it. Some types of HPV cause genital warts – single or multiple bumps that appear in the genital areas of men and women, including the vagina, cervix, vulva, penis and rectum. These are considered low-risk types.
High-risk types of HPV may cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis.
The following factors put you at higher risk for getting genital warts and other complications of HPV:
- Multiple sexual partners
- Not knowing if someone you had sex with had STIs
- Early age when you started being sexually active
- Tobacco and alcohol use
- Stress and other viral infections (such as HIV or herpes) at the same time
After breast cancer, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer affecting South African women: one in every 31 will get it. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common malignant disease in women, causing an estimated 290 000 deaths each year.
Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.
The great news
A vaccine against HPV has recently been developed, and is in wide use in the UK and some other countries. It is recommended for use in girls and women between the ages of nine and 26 years. As HPV is sexually transmitted, it is recommended that women who have become sexually active before the age of 18, and women who have had many partners, should be immunised.
The vaccine, Gardasil, is said to have the potential to reduce the annual number of new cervical cancer cases around the world from 500 000 to about 150 000, and cut deaths from cervical cancer by more than two-thirds, to about 90 000.
HPV common in young men