Slow and silent killers: The HPV problem

Published On:
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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By the time students leave ASU they should be at least smart enough to ask their sexual partners, “have you been tested?” Unfortunately for women, that’s not enough. There’s a sneaky virus out there that’s silently infecting women and secretly hiding in men, and no one wants to talk about it.

About three years ago, ASU alum Kacey Saggonia* went to her doctor for a normal (and smart!) yearly exam. Two weeks later she received a call from her gynecologist; the pap came back abnormal because of a virus called HPV.

“When I first found out I was really upset. I started crying. I immediately called the last person I was sleeping with and blamed him entirely,” says Saggonia.

After the initial shock, Saggonia started doing some research online. She looked up statistics and information on the virus, and eventually calmed her self down. “I realized it wasn’t his fault at all. I was overreacting,” she says. “It’s way more common that I thought it was. I don’t mean to say it’s not a big deal, but it is easily dealt with.”

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. There are over 40 different types that infect the skin and mucous membranes. Some forms, if left untreated for many years, can cause cervical cancer. Other forms can cause genital warts.

The types that cause genital warts are called “low-risk” and the types that cause cell-changes and cancer are called “high-risk.” Once it has infected a body, the virus causes normal cells to turn into abnormal cells. In low risk HPV, these changes might be visible, resulting in warts. In high risk HPV the changes are only seen through a pap test.

If that’s not scary enough, the statistics reveal the virus’ staggering infection rate. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), “Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6.2 million people become newly infected each year. At least 50% of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.”

How is it Treated?

Warts can be removed, but the actual virus isn’t treatable. Often, the body naturally fights off the virus. There are also other procedures that eliminate the abnormal cells so that they don’t grow bigger.

However, for women 11 to 26, there is a way to prevent certain forms of the virus. On June 8, 2006 Merck’s Gardasil was approved by the FDA as an HPV vaccine. A series of three shots, costing a whopping $450, can prevent four types of the HPV virus. Not all insurance plans cover the injections, and even the ones that do often cover only a small portion of the price.

Amy Logan, a women gender studies senior, says, “it’s a way to commodify women’s bodies.” Logan explains that she think the vaccine is more of a moneymaking scheme rather than necessary treatment. “It’s sort of a class issue. Who has medical care? Who has money to pay for this? It’s reaching a certain select group of people. In the long run it might not help all that much anyway. There’s hundreds of viruses that can cause cancer, this protects against two,” Logan says.

Logan also is rather skeptical about whether or not the virus is even a big deal. “I think this has probably been around for while, and now we have a way to treat it so it’s become a big issue. It can make people a lot of money,” she says.

Logan recommends a more natural approach. “I think that your body repairs itself. In general if you take care of yourself, then it will help. Obviously wearing a condom will help,” she says.

Tempe local, Heather Gifford, has a different point of view. “A few of my good friends got HPV, so I did some research. After I looked into it, I wanted to make sure that I was protected,” says Grifford, who got the vaccine a year ago.

What about men?

The scariest part about HPV is that there might not be any symptoms besides an abnormal pap. What does that mean for men? It means they might be carriers and never know about it. Men could have HPV for years and not have any symptoms.

“It’s really weird knowing that I could be infected with something and never know it. Even worse, it’s horrible to think I could pass it on to some one else,” says Jimmy Marble, English lit senior. Marble says the best way for a guy to prevent infection is to use protection and communicate with his partners.

Men need to do their research too, mainly so they know how to deal with it. “Especially guys don’t have a lot of information on it. As soon as they hear it they freak out. They don’t realize they could have it too because they don’t have any symptoms. It kind of freaks them out,” says Saggionia.

The Moral

It’s an extremely common virus, so there’s no reason to freak out about it. But it still needs to be dealt with. Don’t freak out, just deal with it. And wear some rubber.

*Name Changed

Baby Free, no STD?

143 Common Stds

HPV isn’t the only problem among young, sexually active adults. All types of STDS are continuing to be a major problem. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the most common STDS, in order, are HPV, Chlamydia, herpes and trichomoniasis. About 26% of females ages 14 to 19 are infected with one of these viruses.

Many of the girls tested in the study were prescribed emergency contraceptives by a doctor, but were not tested. Chlamydia and gonorrhea require a separate test from simple pap, and many women fail to opt for the screening.

In fact, the same article tells that “Analyzing data from a subset of 1328 unmarried, sexually active young women aged 15 to 24 years, the researchers found that 82% of women received either contraceptive or STD/HIV services during the previous year, but only 39% received both.”

Reach the reporter at kahavens@asu.edu.