The human body is a wondrous yet weird thing – the more we learn about it, the less we actually know about its amazingly complicated functioning. For example, were you aware that, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide and second most common cancer in women in India?
Yes, this is right as this data is published by the American Cancer Society. Fortunately, with awareness, the situation has improved, but one must still take precautions.
So, what exactly causes cervical cancer, among other severe health issues for women? The main cause is the Human Papillomavirus or HPV, which is a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
I learned about this a decade ago, when I was in my early 20s. My forward-thinking gynecologist spoke to me about HPV and recommended preventive measures emphasizing the need for safe sex, regular check-ups/screening & HPV vaccination; and so, I have personally followed the advice and got myself vaccinated. Now, armed with this information, I’m glad I will be able to make my children aware about HPV diseases and prevention.
Do continue reading to learn more about HPV and its symptoms and how it can be prevented. I would recommend you consult your doctor/gynaecologist about its preventive measures, including the vaccine. This way you can also help protect your children’s freedom to enter adulthood without fear and with confidence.
WHAT IS HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS OR HPV?
The HPV infection is a viral infection that manifests commonly on the skin in the form of warts. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some low risk types of HPV infection cause genital warts, and in the worst cases, they can cause different types of cancers. Fortunately, most HPV infections clear on their own and don’t lead to serious health problems. But if some high-risk types of genital HPV remain in the body, it can cause cancer of the lower part of the uterus which is known as the cervix. Other types of cancers that have been linked to HPV include cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva. The most common way of transmitting these infections is through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.
Nearly all sexually active people can be infected with HPV within months to years of becoming sexually active. Around half of these infections are with a high-risk HPV type. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. Anyone sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. One can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected. Incidence of HPV was 28% in women with first sexual partner and increased to almost 50% in 3 years.
The main causes of human papillomavirus infections are a weak immune system from another illness, the presence of conditions like HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), or if one takes immunosuppressant medications regularly. Further, warts can occur where the skin has been cut open or injured. Unfortunately, touching a wart or a surface that a person with HPV has come in contact with increases the likelihood of infection.
WHAT IS THE DISEASE BURDEN?
HPV is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer in India. Most HPV infections clear out on their own. However, in some women, the human papillomavirus doesn’t simply go away. This can cause the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix. If left untreated, these cells may develop into cervical cancer. Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. Apart from cervical cancer, HPV can cause other cancers as well, including cancer of the vulva and vagina. 80% of sexually active men and women get infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime! India accounts for 20% of the global burden of Cervical cancer. Every 5 minutes one person dies due to HPV cancers, and cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in India.
These kinds of statistics make it important for us to be aware of the Human Papillomavirus, so we can help protect our children in turn.
HOW DOES HPV DISEASE MANIFEST?
HPV can manifest in the form of warts. Often, the human body quashes the virus before it translates into warts, but when they do appear, they look different depending on which kind of HPV is involved. For example, genital warts can look like flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stem-like protrusions. They rarely cause discomfort or pain, though they may itch or feel tender. Other types of warts include common warts, plantar warts, or flat warts.
Most sexually active people might never know they have HPV because the infection usually goes away on its own. According to a study, HPV infections usually occur 2 to 3 months after sexual interaction. In some cases, they have been known to occur many years after sexual interaction.
CAN HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS VIRUS BE TREATED?
There is no treatment for the virus itself. There is, however, a preventive vaccine for HPV. Your doctor can provide you with more information about it. I’m aware that HPV can affect the reproductive tract.
My doctor had advised me that the vaccine should ideally be taken before a person becomes sexually active. This is why they recommend girls should take them in their teens – the earlier the better. However, traditional wisdom has changed since then, and you should consult your doctor to find out more.
If you have not had occasion to take the preventive vaccine, it’s never too late to consult your doctor simply to learn more about it and help prevent certain HPV-related cancers and diseases including genital warts, and cervical pre-cancers. Using condoms and dental dams during sexual activity can also prevent the spread of HPV. My doctor advised me to take regular Pap screenings and take the HPV DNA test.
There is no need to panic or feel worried about HPV if you are reading about it for the first time. Knowledge is power and only by being aware of the disease will you be able to deal with it head-on. So, consult your doctor to safeguard your health and that of your loved ones today.
You can read more about HPV here, and consult their expert about HPV prevention.
Issued in public interest by MSD India..
This information is for awareness only. Please consult your doctor for more information on HPV.
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