The human papillomavirus (a.k.a. HPV) is the most common STD in the country right now. In fact, an estimated 79 million Americans are currently infected with the virus, and about 14 million become newly infected each year. It’s so common, that most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. While not all HPV strains are life-threatening, certain cases can lead to cervical cancer, a disease that still ranks the highest among Hispanic women."Latinas have the highest incidence of cervical cancer in this country," says Dr. Ana G. Cepin, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Vision of Family and Preventive Services at Columbia University. "That number is 9.9 new cases per 100,000 persons in 2008 through 2012." Latinas also have the second-highest mortality rate, which is why preventative care is so crucial. But the problem is with all the myths and misconceptions surrounding HPV, most women don't understand how to prevent it. Dr. Cepin breaks down everything you need to know.
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Condoms won't always protect you. "HPV is transmitted via skin surface to skin surface," says Dr. Cepin. "You could potentially get HPV even if you use a condom because there are bodily fluids involved and the condom may not cover the entire area." However, it is still suggested to use a condom because it could decrease your risk of transmission.
The vaccine is the only real way to prevent it. The vaccine is close to 100 percent effective and there are three different options that are offered. Cervarix protects against HPV 16 and 18, the strains responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Gardasil protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18, which are associated with genital warts; and Garadsil 9 covers even more strands. However, the FDA does not approve the vaccine for women over the age of 26. "This is when the vaccine is most likely to be effective: before the onset of intercourse and exposure to HPV," says Dr. Cepin. “Studies show that the vaccine is safe and offers protection in older women, although it’s not as effective as when used on younger girls and women.”Vaginal sex is not the only way you can get it. Because HPV is a skin-to-skin contact infection, there are other ways to contract it aside from vaginal intercourse. "You can potentially get HPV from oral sex, and we know that you can definitely get HPV from anal sex," explains Dr. Cepin.
Men can't be tested. As of now, there is no clinical test for men. This is important to keep in mind when having unprotected sex even in a monogamous relationship.
The vaccine is safe and easy. "It is given in three doses and is very safe and effective," adds Dr. Cepin, who says that the vaccine can be administered by your doctor.
There are different types of HPV. There are different kinds of HPV strains. Low-risk HPV tends to cause the development of genital warts, while high-risk HPV can lead to life-threatening, cervical cancer, which is common among Latinas. This is why cervical cancer screenings are so important. "Cervical cancer screen recommendations are based on your age," says Dr. Cepin. "Usually we recommend Pap smears every three years in women between the ages of 21 and 29. We recommend Pap smear with HPV testing every five years for women ages 30 and 65." But the HPV test is typically only done for women ages 21 to 29, depending on Pap smear findings. If you are over 30 you can request an HPV test, called a co-test, with your Pap smear.
There are treatments to help with symptoms. While there is no treatment for the virus itself, there are treatments for some of the health problems caused by HPV, such as genital warts, cervical precancer lesions, as well as HPV-related cancers — cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer — if detected in time. But many HPV infections can go away on their own as your body's immune system fights them off.
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