Confused about genital human papillomavirus? The condition, known as HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., causing six million new infections in sexually-active adults each year.
While most cases of HPV clear up on their own, some strains lead to genital warts or to cancer of the cervix, anus and penis -- among others. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer, causing an estimated 500,000 new cases and 275,000 deaths each year.
Although it is the most common STI and one that can, in rare instances, have dire consequences, there are many ways to reduce your individual risk for both the virus and the associated conditions it causes. Cervarix protects against cancer-associated strains, and Gardasil protects against both those and strains associated with genital warts, as well. And condom use and regular screening can further prevent infection.
Despite education efforts and media focus, many misconceptions about the disease pervade. So, to honor Cervical Health Awareness Month, we've compiled eight of the most common -- and most damaging -- misconceptions about the virus. You owe it to yourself and your future partners to read on:
An Abnormal Pap Test Means You Have High-Risk HPV
Pap tests are the commonly accepted screening to prevent cervical cancer. A doctor scrapes a cell culture from a woman's cervix and then examines the cells for signs of abnormality. But just because a few of those cells appear abnormal, requiring further screening, doesn't necessarily mean that you've got a cancer-causing strain of HPV -- that's only one potential cause. "The difference could be due to local irritation, a non-HPV infection, a low-risk HPV type, or even a mistake in the preparation of the cell sample," writes the American Sexual Health Association.
Condom Use Prevents HPV
HPV is passed via skin contact, rather than bodily fluid. For that reason, condoms can <em>lower</em> the risk of the disease, but they are not a sufficiently preventive measure, as they are for viruses like HIV and bacteria like gonorrhea.
Oral Sex Is Safe From Cancer Risk
While the HPV-cancer connection most often relates to cervical health, a 2011 <em>Journal of Clinical Oncology</em> study found what doctors have long observed: There has been a surge in HPV-associated oral cancers. In fact, between 1988 and 2004, <a href="http://nyp.org/enews/oral-sex-hpv.html">HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers rose 225 percent</a>. Oral sex is the primary culprit, making cancer screening of the mouth and esophagus another important test while visiting the doctor.
HPV Vaccine Means I Don't Have To Worry About Cervical Cancer
The HPV vaccine protects against four strains of the virus that are most often associated with cancer and genital warts, but that doesn't mean it prevents cancer entirely. One concern within the medical community is that the vaccination will <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104818/">provide a false sense of security</a> and prevent innoculated men and women from receiving regular cancer screening. "Clearer information is needed concerning the incomplete protection offered by the vaccine, and that cervical screening will still be required," wrote a group of British public health researchers in the <em>Journal of Medical Screening</em>.
HPV Is A Serious, Life-Long Condition
About 90 percent of HPV infections <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/surv-manual/chpt05-hpv.pdf">are resolved by the body's immune system</a>.
Genital Warts Can Be Pre-Cancerous
Some strains of HPV (<a href="http://www.ashastd.org/std-sti/hpv/myths-and-misconceptions.html">"low risk" types 6, 11, 42, 43 and 44</a>) cause benign growths known as genital warts and other strains (types 16, 18, 31 and 45) cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or an area called the oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils. But that doesn't mean that one leads to the other -- genital warts, <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm">which affect about one percent of the sexually active U.S. adult population</a> -- do not lead to cancer.
The HPV Vaccine Is For Girls
The first HPV-preventive vaccine on the market, Gardasil, was approved by the FDA for use in girls in 2006 and <a href="http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm187003.htm">in boys three years later</a>. What's more, there are <em>two</em> FDA-approved vaccines for girls and women: Gardasil and Cervarix; while only Gardasil is available to boys and men. Still, HPV vaccination is the responsibility of all. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend the vaccine for boys for two primary reasons. First, inoculated boys will not be vectors for the disease, which can contribute to herd immunity and prevent dangerous infection in women. But more, the incidence of HPV-associated cancers that affect men is also growing, including anal and penile cancer and cancers of the mouth and throat.
Girls Who Receive An HPV Vaccine Will Be More Sexually Active
<a href="http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1206813,00.html">Despite initial hand-wringing</a> that the vaccine could lead to promiscuity, a study of adolescent girls -- both those who had been inoculated and those who hadn't -- found no evidence that those who received the vaccination engaged in riskier behavior: they were no more likely to contract an STI, become pregnant or even seek out contraception -- a measure of intended sexual activity. "HPV vaccination in the recommended ages was not associated with increased sexual activity–related outcome rates," <a href="http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/10/10/peds.2012-1516.abstract%7CSexual">the researchers wrote</a>.
Clarification: Language has been changed to specify the difference between the two vaccines. A previous reference to gonorrhea as a virus has also been changed; it is a bacteria