I am in the midst of preparing a lecture on Cervical Dysplasia, Cervical Cancer & HPV for my Women’s & Men’s Health students at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. So, I am happily armed with new research to answer your questions.
This is a fact sheet I made up ages ago that never made it onto my website. It was meant to accompany the article on Cervical Dysplasia and HPV. Sometimes having facts like these handy can go a long way to ease anxiety about confusing medical diagnoses like “abnormal pap”.
- HPV refers to the Human Papilloma Virus, which is actually a group of over one hundred different viruses. Thirty to forty of these target the anogenital tissues (others cause plantar warts, for instance).
- HPV is associated with cervical cancer – around 90% of the time.
- 15 types of HPV are considered “high risk” in terms of their association with cervical cancer.
- 4 types of HPV cause genital warts. These types are actually classified as “low risk” because they are not associated with cervical cancer.
- HPV is sexually transmitted – via any skin to skin contact (eg finger-genital, genital-genital, genital-anus). Because it lives on skin, condoms do not prevent transmission (incidentally, neither does the spermicide nonoxynol-9). Also because it lives on skin, transmission occurs between women. Even women who have only ever had female sexual partners test positive for HPV. Oh, and for those of you who worry about these things, the virus CANNOT be transmitted by inanimate objects like toilet seats. Rest assured.
- HPV infection is usually transient, meaning our bodies can clear the infection. And we might never know we have it. According to one medical reference, “ the overwhelming majority of [HPV] infections are cleared by the host immune system and never present as warts or neoplasia”.
- HPV is common: Up to 80% of young women (usually defined in the studies as under 30, but sometimes younger) have HPV at any given time. According to the most common estimates, 75-80% of individuals of reproductive age have had an HPV infection. While HPV is most often found in abnormally growing cells, it is also found in healthy normal cells, indicating that the virus is not the entire cause of abnormal cell growth. So, HPV doesn’t always cause cancer, and not all cancer is associated with HPV. This is critical to understanding the complex etiology of dysplasia.
- Gardasil, the new HPV vaccine, targets only four HPV types: 6, 11, 16, & 18. The former two types are associated with warts, and the latter are the two most commonly associated with cancer out of the 15 high-risk types. So, to clarify, the vaccine, which is based on the over-simplified notion that HPV causes cancer, does not even protect against all the high-risk strains of HPV, and of course does not address the myriad of other factors that contribute to whether or not someone has persistent dysplasia. Clearly, then, this is not a prevent cancer vaccine, exactly.
- Gardasil, then, is a vaccine against four out of one hundred types of HPV.