Any news on a cure for HPV
Why education about HPV is so important & how to protect yourself
What is HPV? And how common is the virus?
HPV stands for human papilloma virus. In total there are over 100 different types of HPV, around 40 of which can occur in the genital area. The virus can also be visible on the throat and in the mouth. HPV is considered one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STIs): About 80 percent of all sexually active people will experience an HPV infection at least once in their life. Every year around 14 million new infections are added worldwide. The HPV virus is extremely contagious but rarely shows symptoms. Most people don't even know they are carrying the virus.
Some types of HPV can cause genital warts, while others can lead to dangerous cell changes that can lead to cervical, genital, mouth or throat cancer. HPV infections can linger in your body for years without being noticed. Unfortunately, it is still almost impossible to determine exactly when someone has contracted HPV, how long they have had it, let alone who they have contracted it from.
Illustration: Anna Sudit.
Everything you've read so far sounds a bit terrifying at first, so we want to announce some positive news here: A majority of HPV infections do not have any really drastic effects. An infection usually goes away on its own within one to two years without causing any major problems, and you usually don't even notice it. The terms warts and cancer, which are often used in connection with HPV, are often quick to frighten people, but they rarely result in either of the two diseases.
As HPV can spread to areas that cannot be protected by condom use, condoms cannot prevent infection. As with other STIs, they can definitely reduce the risk. The only safe way to avoid HPV is to avoid genital contact with anyone for the rest of your life. Since most of us will not completely forego physical closeness after all, the best solution for everyone involved is to get vaccinated against HPV, to do regular tests and to use condoms.
Illustration: Anna Sudit.
Genital warts (low risk HPV)
Genital warts spread through skin contact (often during vaginal or anal sex). According to experts, around one to two percent of all sexually active people in Germany are affected by genital warts. If total abstinence isn't your thing, condoms are the best solution to keep the viruses from spreading further. By the way, condoms also help that existing genital warts disappear more quickly because other areas are protected from further infection.
Although HPV can lead to other types of warts on the body, it is very unlikely that warts spread from the hands to the genitals or vice versa. Genital warts tend to stick to the genitals. There are a total of twelve types of HPV that can cause genital warts, types 6 and 11 being the most common (luckily, the Gardasil vaccination protects against both of these types). Genital warts develop in the vagina and vulva, on the penis, on the scrotum and anus and rarely in the rectum or urethra. You can get it in your mouth or throat, but this is very unlikely.
They are like small, soft bumps and sometimes look a bit like cauliflower. Genital warts also come in all sizes, can be flat or raised, and often appear in groups or in multiple locations. Usually they are painless, sometimes people don't even notice them - or mistake them for other skin conditions. For some, however, they can itch, burn, or cause pain during sex.
Genital warts can be transmitted between partners even when no HPV symptoms or signs of warts are seen. It usually takes between six weeks and six months for the warts to develop, but it can sometimes take longer. Often our body fights the virus on its own and the warts simply go away again - high five, immune system! - but they can stay longer, get bigger or spread if they are not treated. Many people just wait and see. But if the warts cause you discomfort, get in the way of your sex life or bother you in general, you can take action against them. Treating genital warts early will also reduce the risk of passing the infection to a partner. The warts can be burned away, frozen, lasered, cut off or treated with medication, which usually also successfully eliminates them. However, these treatments do not cure the HPV virus itself, which is why unwanted visitors turn up from time to time. Smokers and people with compromised immune systems often have a harder time getting rid of an HPV infection.
Genital warts can look like other common skin problems, so only a doctor can tell you what exactly. Of course, no one is happy to have warts in their erogenous zone, but the positive thing is that they are not dangerous and DO NOT cause cancer. Therefore, these types of HPV are classified as “low risk”. However, the irritation from warts can lead to sores and bleeding, making it easier to contract HIV and other STIs - which are even more reasons to use condoms!) There are also people who have more than one HPV infection at once so warts can be a sign of other, more serious types of HPV.
Illustration: Anna Sudit.
HPV and cancer (high risk HPV)
About 15 types of HPV can (sometimes) lead to cancer, which is why they are called "high risk" HPV. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer that develops from HPV. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the virus, but HPV can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis or anus, and the mouth and throat. If the high-risk types of HPV persist in the body, they can lead to abnormal changes in cells that will sooner or later develop cancer. As with genital warts, the high-risk HPV is transmitted through skin contact, so condoms are the best way to protect yourself when you have sex.
High-risk HPV has no symptoms, and most people who have it feel normal. Even with cervical cancer, there are no signs at first until it progresses and becomes dangerous. So far there is no cure for HPV. It usually takes several years for cancer to develop and for abnormal cells in the cervix to be discovered and treated.
Again, most HPV infections are temporary and not severe, so you shouldn't waste too much energy thinking about whether or not you might have HPV. Make sure you get tested regularly so that any problem can be addressed early enough.
So-called Pap smears and HPV tests, in which your doctor takes a smear of your uterus and examines the cells, are the first steps you can take yourself. Pap smears will show if there are abnormal cell changes, and HPV testing will reveal whether these cell changes are caused by high-risk types of HPV. The Pap test is recommended from the age of 20, once a year. It is also advisable to have an HPV test every five years if you are 30 years of age.
Abnormal Pap results are perfectly normal, most of the time it does NOT mean you have cancer. Your doctor will tell you what to do next to stay healthy - sometimes they repeat the smear, do another HPV test, or recommend a closer examination of the uterus called a colposcopy. Abnormal cells can heal on their own, but colposcopies and other procedures are very effective today and can in many cases prevent the development of cancer at an early stage. Why some people fight off HPV infections easily and others develop cell changes or cancer is still unclear, but it is known that smokers and people with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
The survival rate for cervical cancer is 93 percent if it's discovered early. This is why regular checkups are so important. In Germany, the Pap test is covered by the statutory health insurance companies. The HPV test is available from the gynecologist as an IGeL service for € 50-80. At the moment, HPV tests can only be performed on the uterus; they are not yet available for penises or other parts of the body. Another important tool in the fight against cancer helps - the HPV vaccination, which can protect all parts of the body.
Illustration: Anna Sudit.
Cancer is always scary, and warts aren't exactly great, but luckily, there are vaccinations available to help prevent both. You heard right: Vaccinations that help against STIs and cancer prevention! While HPV vaccinations cannot treat or cure existing infections, cancer, or warts, they are one of the most reliable ways to protect you and your partner from future infections (along with condoms). Young people, regardless of gender, can get the HPV vaccination. In women, it helps against cervical cancer and sometimes to prevent genital warts. But it also protects men from genital warts, anal and penile cancer, and oral cancer, and prevents them from receiving high-risk HPV from their partners or passing it on to them.
There are two types of HPV vaccinations that have been shown to protect against the types of HPV that most commonly lead to warts and / or cancer: Cervarix and Gardasil. Cervarix is only intended for young women and protects against two high-risk types of HPV that are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers (types 16 and 18). Gardasil, on the other hand, is intended for men and young women and protects against types 16 and 18, as well as against types 6 and 11, 90 percent of which are responsible for the development of genital warts. A new version of Gardasil, which protects against a total of nine types of HPV, has been available in Germany since 2016. It also protects against types 6, 11, 16 and 18, and against five other types of high-risk HPV, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.
The HPV vaccination works best for people who have not had sexual contact before. This is why it is recommended for children between the ages of 11 and 12 and can be performed from the age of 9. However, research has not yet been able to prove that the HPV vaccination is still effective for people over 26 because the majority of us have already been exposed to HPV by then. Some health insurance companies pay for the vaccination beyond the age of 18. The best thing to do is to get medical advice.
Are HPV Vaccinations Safe? Yes. Studies have repeatedly proven its safety. To date, over 57 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given and there is no data showing any serious side effects. The most common side effects are short-term pain and redness at the vaccinated site. One of the reasons HPV vaccination is considered controversial is because it prevents sexually transmitted infections. Some consider this to be inappropriate in children. But while vaccination protects against an STI, it is not suitable for sexually active people - it works best in young children (before they even have sexual contact) and can really prevent HPV and cancer later in life. In addition, studies have shown that the HPV vaccination does NOT lead to increased sexual activity. So, no, vaccinating kids against HPV isn't going to turn them into turbo-fucking lunatics. It will only protect them against genital warts and adult cancer.
According to the American CDC, HPV vaccination can prevent around 21,000 HPV-related cancers per year. Gardasil 9 even has the potential to prevent around 90% of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers. This is a big deal and an important argument for anyone eligible to be vaccinated. In fact, the rate of HPV in girls has decreased by 56 percent since the vaccination was introduced. The more people vaccinated, the smaller the number will be. Another bonus? The HPV vaccination is covered by most health insurance companies at no additional cost. 100 percent win.
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