Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and can lead to serious complications such as cervical cancer. At Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, the newly approved HPV vaccine is being used to reduce the number of women who become infected with this virus.
According to Maureen Cook, M.D., OB/GYN at Mount Auburn Hospital, there are at least 100 different types of HPV, which are divided into two different categories: high and low risk. “The virus strains in the low-risk category cause genital warts or no visible symptoms,” she says. “Viruses in the high-risk category may cause cervical pre-cancer, which may lead to cervical cancer.”
HPV can affect both men and women and most frequently infects the cervix, vagina, vulva, rectum, urethra, penis and anus. Risk factors include having a large number of sexual partners, smoking, becoming sexually active at a young age and having a vulnerable immune system.
The virus is diagnosed through visual inspections and Pap tests. Although there is no cure for HPV, the virus may be suppressed without treatment. However, symptoms that appear and persist such as genital warts can be treated with topical creams, cryotherapy or laser treatment. Other symptoms that present as an abnormal Pap smear can be observed or treated with surgery as needed.
Cervical cancer is a common cancer among women and most cases are caused by the HPV virus. Risks for cervical cancer are the same as those for HPV. Symptoms include a watery, bloody vaginal discharge and vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or after intercourse. However, sometimes cervical cancer can be present with no symptoms at all.
Dr. Cook says the new HPV vaccine is a huge medical breakthrough because it is the first vaccine to provide protection against a cancer-producing virus. “There are other virus-killing vaccines available in the United States, but no others protect against cancer,” she says. “It’s a step toward winning the war on cancer.”
At Mount Auburn Hospital, physicians are administering the new HPV vaccine to reduce risk for a select group of girls and women. “The new vaccine protects against the two most common low-risk and the two most common high-risk types of HPV,” Dr. Cook says.
The vaccine was approved for girls and women ages 9 through 26 and is administered in a series of three shots over a six-month period. According to Dr. Cook the vaccine is highly beneficial for girls and women who are not yet sexually active because they are unlikely to be infected with any strains of HPV. However, the vaccine is recommended for all females regardless of sexual history. In the future, it is possible the vaccine could be made available to other groups, including women outside the current age range and boys and men.
Even if a woman gets the HPV vaccine, she will still need to be tested for cervical cancer throughout her life. “It’s important for women to not only get the vaccine, but also get regular pelvic exams and Pap smears,” Dr. Cook advises.
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