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Over 100 strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) exist.  While the majority of these are harmless, 30 to 40 of these put those infected at risk for cancer.  OB/GYN physicians and scientists classify HPV infections as either low-risk or high-risk. Low-risk HPV infections can lead to unsightly, and sometimes painful, genital warts.  High-risk HPV infections can cause cancers of the cervix and genital area in females.  Males with high-risk HPV infections risk developing cancer of the genital area as well.

Who Is at Risk for HPV Infection?

Every sexually active person risks contracting HPV during intercourse or other intimate sexual acts.  Condoms offer some protection, but only complete abstinence provides an absolute guarantee against HPV infection.  Genital HPV is so prevalent that approximately 50 percent of men and women will contract it at some point during their sexually active years.  Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV with another 6 million new cases annually.

Signs and Symptoms

Many types of HPV result in the formation of genital warts.  These often resolve on their own within two years, but can be removed by a healthcare provider or at home using physician recommended remedies.  However, a significant number of those infected will not have any symptoms at all.  These people may not realize they carry the infection and unwittingly transmit the disease to others.  No quick laboratory test exists that detects a person’s HPV infection status.  As a woman, your primary means of detection is your annual pap smear.  A Pap smear can detect cervical abnormalities that are easily treated, before cancer develops. In certain instances, a physician may order DNA testing of a woman’s cells due to a Pap smear abnormality.  This test definitively determines the strain of HPV infecting the woman and if that strain puts her at risk for cancer.

Prevention Is Key

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a landmark vaccine for girls aged 9 to 26.  The vaccine, called Gardisil, protects against many of the strains of HPV responsible for the majority of cervical cancers and genital warts in women. Since then, another vaccine, Cerverix, has emerged that offers similar protection against HPV infection. Both vaccine brands are given as a series of 3 injections over a 6-month period.  The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all girls receive a vaccine series between the ages of 11 and 12.  They strongly urge girls and young women, aged 13 to 26, to receive one of the two available vaccines as well.  Virtually all reputable OB/GYN clinics offer the vaccine series.

If you are age 26 or younger and have not yet received a protective vaccine series, or never completed a series started at a younger age, speak to your OB/GYN doctor about the available vaccines and their appropriateness for you.

Majority of Eligible Females Not Receiving the Vaccine

Research, presented in November 2010, shows that 75 percent of eligible females are not receiving one of the available vaccines.  Many young girls and women who begin the vaccine series fail to complete all three of the necessary injections.  In fact, of the teens and young women who begin the series, only one-third actually finish it.  This is tragic news as this vaccine can actually prevent the development of deadly cancers.  Researchers and physicians are working to determine how to motivate eligible girls and women to ask for and receive the vaccine series.

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