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Getting the Lowdown on HPV

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By , 19, Contributor Originally Published: January 4, 2008 Revised: January 28, 2013

By now, you’ve probably seen those “One Less” commercials that are all over TV. They feature girls and women doing everyday things while talking about human papillomavirus (HPV) and Gardasil, the new vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All of these women want to be “one less.”

But after seeing these, I was left wondering…one less what? One less young woman affected by HPV? And, what exactly is HPV and how can it affect your body? A lot of us still don’t know much about HPV…except that we don’t want to get it.

The HPV 4-1-1

HPV is actually a group of over 40 different viruses. Most are harmless. But some of the viruses, called “high risk,” can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis. The other “low risk” ones may cause genital warts, which are growths or bumps that can appear in or around the vagina or anus, on the vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum, groin or thigh. They may show up weeks or months after having sex with an infected partner, and can be treated. However, HPV can be tricky, because many infected people never have any symptoms. Yet even if you don’t know you have it, you can still give it to a partner.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also states that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women in the U.S. will get HPV at some point in their lives.

Since learning all about HPV and Gardasil, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should get the vaccine myself.

Detection and Prevention

Women can find out if they have HPV through a Pap test. Pap tests check the cells of the cervix for infection, abnormal cervical cells and cervical cancer. Unfortunately, if you’re male, there are no tests available that screen for HPV. But doctors can easily detect genital warts, which are the most common HPV-caused problem in men.

You’ve probably heard this a million times about STDs, but, yes, the best way to avoid HPV is to not have sex or genital contact with anyone else. But let’s be real—lots of people our age aren’t going to stop having sex. So, we might as well be responsible about it and protect ourselves against STDs like HPV. HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, not bodily fluids. Those who use latex condoms have a lower rate of cervical cancer, which is associated with HPV infection, and research by the New England Journal of Medicine shows that condoms may be 70 percent effective at preventing the spread of HPV.

Personally, I always think it’s better to be safe than sorry. In other words, if you’re going to have sex—whether it be oral, anal or vaginal sex—use protection. (Check out this FAQ on protecting yourself form STDs.)

A New Option

Girls and women can also protect themselves against HPV by receiving a series of three shots of Gardasil. You can be one less person who contracts HPV strains 16 and 18, which are associated with 70 percent of the cases of cervical cancers, and strains 6 and 11, which are associated with 90 percent of cases of genital warts. The vaccine works best in girls and women who are not yet sexually active, because they have not yet had the possibility of getting genital HPV. Even after getting the shot, you will need regular Pap tests, because Gardasil doesn’t protect against all strains of HPV.

Unfortunately, the vaccine is expensive. Each dose costs $120, so a full series costs $360. Check with your insurance provider to see if they’ll cover this vaccine. Certain federal health programs, like Vaccines for Children, provide coverage to children and teens under 19 years of age who meet certain specifications, and certain public health department clinics provide vaccines for free or at a low cost to people without health insurance.

What about Me?

Since learning all about HPV and Gardasil, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should get the vaccine myself. As a lesbian, I assumed my chances of contracting HPV were pretty much nonexistent. But according to the National Women’s Health Information Center, lesbians can spread HPV through genital contact or sex toys. Some lesbians have had sex with men, increasing the likeliness of getting HPV. All women, regardless of their sexuality, should receive regular Pap tests.

Actually, a bunch of my friends have already gotten the vaccine and have told me I should too. But, honestly, I have a huge fear of needles, and I’m not sure that I want to put myself through three shots. I told this to my friend Sarah, whose mother is a doctor and urged Sarah to get the shots. Sarah kind of laughed and said, “You think I’m not afraid? I’m not excited about the shots. I’m terrified of needles, too, but in general, I think the vaccine is a great idea. If it saves lives, it can’t be a bad thing. And while it’s certainly not a cure for cancer, it’s a step in that direction. So just get the shot already!”

Those may just be words to live by.

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