Earlier this month, on March 4, our office celebrated International HPV Awareness Day.
HPV (human papillomavirus) is a very common virus. HPV can be passed through vaginal, anal, or oral sex and spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Many people who get the virus do not show any symptoms, and the infection can go away on its own. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: “HPV infections are so common that nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Most people never know that they have been infected and may give HPV to a sex partner without knowing it. Nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected with some type of HPV. About 14 million people in the United States become newly infected each year."
Watch this one minute video from WebMD, explaining the basics of HPV and getting vaccinated against the virus.
Some strains of HPV can lead to cervical, anal, or oral cancers. Gardasil, a vaccine for HPV, is given in a series of three vaccines: at day zero, two months later, and six months after the first vaccine. There are over 200 strains of HPV, and Gardasil protects against 9 of the high risk strains of HPV—those most linked to cervical, anal, and oral cancers. The vaccine is extremely safe, not associated with autism, and is, in general, the only vaccine to prevent cancer(s). Clinicians have a responsibility to tell their patients about Gardasil, so patients can make an informed choice to protect themselves against HPV and ask for the vaccine series.
Ideally, the Gardasil vaccine series is completed prior to HPV exposure. The CDC recommends that boys and girls, starting between ages 11-12, get the vaccine. Last fall, the FDA approved an increase in its recommended age range for HPV vaccination for women up to age 45. At WHP, we recommend, even if a woman is already positive for a high risk strain of HPV, that she get vaccinated for HPV, in the hope that the vaccine will protect her from other high risk strains.
Lastly, we have a staff book recommendation on this topic: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Ms. Lacks died of cervical cancer. As the author’s website describes, “[Ms. Lacks] was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.”
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