September 18, 2014
ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

Columnists

 Health Home 
Columnists News

HPV: Three little letters that confuse Feb. 18, 2013
Written by: Marilyn Linton, QMI Agency

Lena Dunham in "Girls". (HO)

When Hannah tested positive for HPV, she freaked out – and so did fans of HBO’s award-winning TV series, Girls. The mega-hit follows 20-something Hannah, played by writer/actor Lena Dunham, as she and her friends try to figure out life, love, and, sex.

Judging by the noise on the blogosphere, viewers of that particular episode were offended when Hannah’s friend asserted that “all adventurous women” have HPV or other sexually transmitted diseases, so no big deal. Others said the character’s reaction to her diagnosis was over the top when Hannah announced that the HPV diagnosis meant she had “pre-cancer.”

Ad
How could three little letters create such confusion – including the comparison, by some, that HPV is another form of HIV or AIDS? Well, despite what Hannah’s friend says, HPV is a big deal. According to a recent U.S. cancer surveillance report, there is an increase in incidence rates for cancers associated with HPV or human papillomavirus infection – these include not just cervical cancers but also oropharyngeal, anal and vulvar cancers.

Cervical cancer is a cancer that no woman should get, says Dr. James Bentley, head of the division of gynecology oncology at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Medicine in Halifax. “We commonly see it in young women in their 30’s, people in the prime of life. If it’s advanced, it is one of the most painful of cancers, and it’s very difficult to treat and control.”

In fact, there are over 100 types of HPV but only about 30 of them are sexually transmitted. In many cases, these viruses clear the body on their own, but sometimes they do cause pre-cancerous cell changes that, when left untreated, can lead to cancers of the cervix, anus, or mouth.

“In Canada, we see about 1,300 cervical cancer cases annually,” says Dr. Bentley. He admits that there may still be confusion among women regarding the infection—what it is and is not. One criticism lobbed at the Girls’ episode was that it did nothing more than to muddy the already murky waters surrounding HPV.

Today, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world; 80% of us have it at some time or another. Among 22-year-old women, says Dr. Bentley, about 40% have HPV. Some of these HPV viruses cause genital warts while others can cause changes in tissue cells which, if untreated, can lead to cancer.

Once an HPV infection is confirmed through an HPV test, a woman should be followed to monitor possible changes in the cervix. If the HPV infection has caused cell changes (confirmed through PAP testing) this could lead to cancer; treatments, including LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) are used to remove abnormal pre-cancerous cells from the cervix.

Dr. Bentley says that HPV prevention is the best strategy. In Canada, HPV preventive vaccines have been available since 2006 to protect against most of the cancer-causing strains of HPV.

The success of the school-based vaccine programs (offered in grades five to seven) has been uneven in Canada. Some parents feel their kids are already over-immunized, while others fear there may be side-effects from the vaccine.

“It’s true that the biggest concern has been safety, but millions of doses have been given world-wide with no evidence of side effects,” says Dr. Bentley. “As far as I can see, it’s a no-brainer. Here is a vaccine that has the potential to stop cancers of the cervix, head and neck, as well as anal and vulvar cancers.”

Which test?

Both the Pap and the HPV test are cervical swab tests designed to decrease the rate of cervical cancer, but they are processed differently in the lab. “With the HPV test, the negative is really negative,” says Dr. Bentley who adds that in a perfect world, using both tests, plus immunizing against HPV, would be the best way to prevent infection.

 

MORE COLUMNS BY MARILYN LINTON, QMI AGENCY

The contents of this site are for informational purposes only and are meant to be discussed with your physician or other qualified health care professional before being acted on. Never disregard any advice given to you by your doctor or other qualified health care professional. Always seek the advice of a physician or other licensed health care professional regarding any questions you have about your medical condition(s) and treatment(s). This site is not a substitute for medical advice.

© 1996 - 2014 MediResource Inc. - MediResource reaches millions of Canadians each year.