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Untreated, HPV infection can lead to cervical cancer

Tara Weiss The Hartford Courant

If you’re a woman, you’ve likely either received the phone call or made the phone call.

There’s a bump … down there. Or maybe you had an irregular pap smear.

You find out it’s the sexually transmitted disease HPV (human papilloma virus). It’s scary, and embarrassing.

You have a million questions. Will it go away? Is this the end of sex? Are you going to get cervical cancer?

You start the phone chain. Friends weigh in with the information they’ve read in Glamour magazine. Some confide they have it, too. But you didn’t think you were the type of person to get it. You were wrong.

“If you look around in a room of women, pretty much everyone in the room has had an HPV infection,” said Eileen Dunne, a medical epidemiologist in the Division of Sexually Transmitted Diseases Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The numbers are staggering. About 20 million Americans—men and women—are currently infected, and about 5.5 million people become newly infected each year.

By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have had it. Half of all sexually active men and women will have HPV at some point in their lives, according to the CDC.

“I don’t think people understand that it’s so widespread,” says a 2004 graduate of the University of Connecticut with HPV who requested anonymity. “People think that means you move faster and that, if you have the STD, people think the person gets around. This disease is everywhere. I’ve only been with three people, and two of them were boyfriends.”

Despite the fact that it’s the most common STD in the U.S., there is a surprising amount of misinformation attached to it.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, of which 30 are STDs. Genital HPV is a skin infection that’s transmitted by genital skin-to-skin contact. One reason it’s so scary is that there’s no protection against it (condoms may reduce the risk, but they’re not guaranteed).

You can be infected but not show symptoms and, therefore, pass it on unknowingly. Although a pap smear may detect the virus in women, there is no test for men. And although there is no medical cure available, the body cures itself in most cases. Indeed, most people never realize they have it before it goes away.

Where HPV represents a grave danger is in women whose infection causes the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix. Undetected and untreated, the condition can lead to cervical cancer, which afflicted 12,000 women last year. Half of those had never had a pap test, which doctors recommend be done annually to catch the disease in its early stages.

If abnormal cells are detected, there usually follows a waiting period to see if they clear up on their own, said Jessica Frickey, spokeswoman for the CDC. “Most of the time, people’s bodies just clear it up,” she said. If not, the cells are surgically removed.

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a test for HPV that can be done during a pap test. It’s recommended for women older than 30. And HPV vaccines are in trials now and could be available by 2006.

“They’re finding good success with trials, but they need to be finalized,” said Dunne.

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