What You Need to Know About HPV, Cervical Cancer, and the Vaccine That Helps Prevent Both
By Jeffrey Levine, MD, Virtua Obstetrician and Gynecologist
Chair, Obstetrics and Gynecology – Virtua South
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted infection that has been a hot health topic for many years.
HPV infection is so common that most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
The following will help you understand HPV and why you need to know about it—especially if you have sons or daughters.
What is HPV?
There are more than 150 known strains of the human papillomavirus. Of those, more than 40 genital HPVs can cause genital warts, as well as cervical cancer. In fact, almost all cervical cancer can be traced back to an HPV infection, and studies are showing links between HPV and a startling increase in several other types of cancer, including that of the head, neck, and anus.
Genital HPV spreads through sexual intercourse or skin-to-skin contact, so you don't have to have intercourse to get it. Latex condoms offer some protection but don't guard completely against transmission through skin-to-skin contact.
HPV infection is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. However, while the Centers for Disease Control notes that there are about 13 million new genital HPV infections each year in the United States, only a small percentage of women with HPV infections develop cervical cancer.
A Pap smear at your yearly gynecological visit is the best screening test for detecting cervical changes that can lead to cervical cancer and, done regularly, the best way to prevent it.
Why are there vaccines to protect against HPV?
The HPV vaccine works like other immunizations that guard against viral infections. It protects against two high-risk strains of HPV that cause more than 70% of cervical cancer cases. Studies show that the HPV vaccine has nearly 100% efficacy for preventing both HPV and cervical cancer cases. HPV vaccines may also offer some protection against the HPV strains that cause genital warts.
Since 2016, HPV vaccines are given in a two-shot dose to girls (and boys) as young as age 9 to prevent HPV long before most kids become sexually active. If not vaccinated in that window, girls and young women ages 13 through 26 should still get the vaccine. Adults ages 26 to 45 under certain circumstances also may be eligible to receive the vaccine.
What does an HPV diagnosis mean?
If a woman tests positive for a high-risk strain of HPV and her Pap test shows dysplasia (abnormal cells), her gynecologist likely will perform a colposcopy. During this procedure, the doctor inspects the cervix with a special microscope. The doctor then takes a biopsy (tissue sample) and sends it to a pathologist to check for cancer cells.
If the biopsy shows cervical cell dysplasia, many treatment options are available to remove or destroy the abnormal cells.
When cervical cancer is found, prognosis and treatment options depend on many factors, including the cancer staging, tumor size, the woman's age, and her desire to have children. Treatment usually involves hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus and cervix) and possibly radiation combined with chemotherapy.
More than 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and more than 4,000 will die from the disease.
This number is staggering, especially because cervical cancer is preventable with regular screenings. Thousands of lives could be saved each year through prevention, screening, and vaccination.
Don't wait to make an appointment for your annual GYN exam and HPV vaccine, if recommended. Call 844-896-6367 today.
Updated June 8, 2021