Six of every 10 women at the University may be infected with a potentially deadly sexually transmitted infection.
But, chances are, many of them don’t know it and may never find out.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, causes genital warts and, in some cases, cervical cancer. It is the most pervasive sexually transmitted infection nationwide, and is the most dangerous for college-aged students, health experts say.
While a new vaccine might help prevent cervical cancer caused by HPV, studies show that college students – the most vulnerable sexually active demographic because they may have many sexual partners – lack the necessary awareness to protect themselves from the viral infection.
“You’ve all got the virus,” said Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of “Loveline,” the nationally syndicated radio talk show.
A July Roper survey found that 67 percent of young adults in the U.S. were unaware that HPV infection can lead to genital warts, the sexually transmitted disease that infects one million new people each year.
Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed also underestimated the large number of HPV-infected Americans.
Pinsky, who campaigns at universities nationwide to spread the word about HPV and his new Web site, www.hpvconfidential.com, said many people do not know they have the viral infection because the majority of strains are undetectable, especially in men.
Unlike herpes, which can cause physical genital sores that discourage sexual intercourse, only one-third of HPV strains lead to the infection’s external manifestation: genital warts, University Health Center Director Tom Ryan said.
College-aged females contract the disease most often, and 60 percent of females ages 18 to 26 are infected with one of the 100 different HPV strains, according to a January 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
At least 20 percent of those infections are HPV-16 – the strain that can cause cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second-most common cancer for women. It affects the lower portion of the uterus and may be detected by a Pap smear.
Nearly 12,000 U.S. women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2003, and about 4,000 women died from the disease that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HPV endangers women because it is the “triggering factor for well over 90 percent of cervical cancers,” Ryan said.
About 35 HPV strains are considered low-risk and sprout warts in the anal and genital areas.
“If you can see it, it is probably low-risk,” Ryan said.
Of these 35 semi-harmless strains, 15 can cause pre-cancerous changes, Ryan said, noting that there are 9,700 new cases of the cancer found in U.S. women each year.
Each year, 330,000 high-risk strains are diagnosed in U.S. women, he said.
Pinsky warned that high-risk strains cannot be detected in men because there is no male equivalent to a Pap smear.
“Play the odds,” Pinsky said. “Assume the male has it.”
Genital warts are the main sign for men that they are infected. Men have no way to test if they carry the harmful HPV strains that can manifest into pre-cancerous cells, Ryan said.
“It’s still very hard to get a handle on,” Ryan said. “There’s no way to test men who are the primary vectors.”
The number of sexual partners people have also increases their susceptibility because they are exposed to every person a partner has ever been with, Ryan said.
Frequency of intercourse and sex at a young age also contribute to the risk of infection, he said.
Condom use, however, helps tremendously to prevent the infection, Pinksy said. Male circumcision can also reduce the risk of spreading the disease.
But sexually active people can still become infected while using a condom because the virus can spread around the genital area.
Frequent male condom use has the potential to decrease a woman’s risk of HPV exposure by as much as 70 percent, according to a Sept. 6 study published in International Family Planning Perspectives.
Health professionals believe the recently approved vaccine, Gardasil, may eradicate the infection almost entirely in the next 10 years. The vaccine, which costs about $450 total for three shots at the Health Center, may be given to children as early as age 11.
Pinsky said all women between the ages of 11 and 26 should be vaccinated.
The vaccine covers four high-risk strains and could prevent 70 percent of cancer and almost all genital warts, Ryan said.
Some health insurance companies cover part of the cost of vaccination, Ryan said.
But early vaccinations are controversial because some conservatives believe it encourages premarital sex.
Since September, the Health Center has vaccinated 23 people for HPV.
What: Human papillomavirus, or HPV – the sexually transmitted infection that causes genital warts and, in some cases, cervical cancer.
Females: Those ages 11 to 26 are encouraged to get the HPV vaccine that protects against the four highest-risk strains.
Men: Can’t be tested for high-risk HPV strains that lead to cervical cancer.
Condoms: Frequent use reduces the risk of exposure.
1 million – Number of new cases of genital warts each year in the U.S.
60 percent – College-aged women who are infected with HPV
67 percent – Portion of young adults recently surveyed who didn’t know that HPV can cause genital warts
70 percent – Amount HPV vaccine can lower risk of cervical cancer
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