What is HPV and how can a vaccine protect me?
HPV, the human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection that causes most cases of cervical cancer in women.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and there are more than 40 types of the disease that can affect the anogenital areas of men and women. It can also result in genital warts and various other kinds of cancer, such as those affecting the mouth and throat.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
In most cases, there are no noticeable symptoms of HPV, which is why women who don’t have regular pap smears face a higher risk of cervical cancer.
Often, HPV clears up on its own, but sometimes, it can lead to the serious diseases mentioned above. There’s no way to tell who will develop health problems from HPV and who will not, which is why it’s so critical to go for annual pap smears.
Risk factors for HPV infection
- Number of sexual partners: The more people you have sex with, the greater your chance of contracting HPV, as it is almost always transmitted through genital skin contact during sex. Having intercourse with a partner who has also had many other partners further increases your risk.
- Age: Genital warts and indications of HPV infection occur most often in adolescents and young adults.
- Weakened immune systems: If your immune system has been weakened by HIV/Aids or immune-suppressing drugs used after organ transplants, you will be at greater risk of HPV infection.
- Damaged skin: Areas of skin that have been punctured or have open wounds are more likely to develop warts.
- Personal contact: Touching someone’s warts or a surface that has been exposed to HPV, such as public pools or showers, may increase your risk of infection.
How can I prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer?
- Always practice safe sex. Use a condom or dental dam every time you engage in any sexual activity, including vaginal, anal and oral sex.
- Have regular pap smears. If you are a sexually active woman of any age, you must have a pap smear once a year. It’s a quick, painless and affordable procedure that will detect whether you have been infected by HPV. If there is evidence of the virus and it does not clear up on its own, you can have a simple procedure to remove the infected cells and decrease the risk of cervical cancer later on.
- Enquire about the HPV vaccine. An HPV vaccine is now available in South Africa, and is offered to girls aged nine and up. Chat to your doctor or nurse about the availability of the vaccine for your daughter or yourself.
When last did you have a pap smear? If it’s been more than a year, you need to book one ASAP. It’s quick, simple and painless.