Column: HPV more common than many think

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Commentary by Dr. Charles Harris

What is HPV? The human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection, having already infected 79 million Americans with approximately 14 million new cases each year.

There are more than 200 types of human papillomavirus, some types causing a variety of cancers. These can include vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, throat, tongue, head and neck cancers. As frightening as this infection can be, there is good news. There is a vaccine that protects against the nine most common types of disease.

Human papillomavirus, though most commonly spread through vaginal or anal sex, can be spread from any genital skin-to-skin contact as well as oral sex with someone who has the virus. The virus can spread even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. For most individuals, HPV clears on its own. It can take years, or even decades, for cancer to develop after a person gets HPV. You can develop symptoms years after you have had sex with someone who is infected, making it difficult to know when you first became infected. It is important to understand that any individual who is sexually active can contract HPV, even if they have only had one partner.

There are several steps you can take to lower your risk of getting HPV, the most important of which is getting vaccinated. Boys and girls can and should be vaccinated as early as 9 years of age, with 11-12 years being the recommended age. The vaccine is most effective prior to being exposed to HPV. Studies show the younger the vaccine is given, the more effective it will be. The vaccine is a two-dose series for ages 11-15; three shots for those 16 years and older. Human papillomavirus is so common that almost every person who is sexually active can get some type of HPV, but not all HPV causes cancer. Safe sex practices such as condoms, limited sexual activity and yearly screenings also can be effective in lowering your risk.

Dr. Charles Harris is the Hamilton County Health Officer and can be reached at the Hamilton County Health Dept. at health@hamiltoncounty.in.gov.

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