HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, most sexually active men and women will probably be infected by HPV at some point in their lives. It can be transmitted by oral, vaginal or anal sex, and can spread easily because there are no obvious physical signs of infection.
There’s no definitive test to pick up HPV infection. Although a Pap smear or an HPV DNA test can be done from a cervical smear, these are not recommended for young children. One of the more evident manifestations of HPV comes in the form of genital warts.
There are numerous types of HPV and many of them have been linked to cervical cancer. Two of the cancer-causing types (HPV 16 and 18) are known to cause nearly 70 to 75% of cervical cancers, while an additional 20% of cervical cancers are due to HPV types 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. Virtually all cervical cancers are brought about by HPV. This is because HPV has been shown to create changes in the character of the cervical cells, especially if one is persistently afflicted with infections caused by the cancer-causing types of HPV. Similar pre-cancerous cell changes have been shown to be attributable to HPV in other genital organs such as the vulva, vagina and anus.
In many cases, HPV goes away without causing any health problems. However, certain types do not go away and become the cause of more long-term health problems. There is no way of distinguishing the benign from the more harmful types of HPV.
Yes, boys can also be infected by HPV that can cause health problems. Although rare, some of the HPV types have been known to cause genital warts, anal cancer and penile cancer. Naturally, manifestations of the HPV infection will differ between boys and girls because of the physiological differences in their reproductive systems.
Genital warts come in different shapes and sizes. They usually appear as a bump or group of bumps in the genital area. Some are flat while some are more pronounced. These are usually detected by a healthcare professional when looking at the genital area. Most anogenital warts (90%) in both males and females are known to be caused by HPV types 6 and 11.
There is no direct treatment for the HPV infection. At best, treatment is limited to the manifestations of the infection. For instance, genital warts can be remedied with patient-applied or physician-applied treatments. These treatments, however, can be temporary as there’s still a high recurrence rate for genital warts even with treatment. Pre-cancerous lesions of the cervix, vagina and vulva may be treated with surgical interventions.
It’s highly recommended that girls and boys be vaccinated against HPV from the age of 9. At this very young age, the body will generate a much stronger immune response if the vaccination occurs before exposure to HPV.
Clinical trials show that vaccines are effective protection against pre-cancers and genital warts. In the US, there has been a 56% reduction in vaccine type HPV infections among teen girls. Research has also shown that, since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, fewer teens in the US and Australia are getting genital warts.
It is best that you consult your doctor on the most appropriate number of shots for your child.
Adolescents 9 to 13 years old will receive 2 shots of the vaccine over a 6-month period. Individuals that are beyond that age range may need to complete 3 shots within 6-month period.
The most common side effects of HPV vaccination are very mild. Aside from soreness, redness and swelling around the injection area, patients have reported headaches, all of which are self-limiting and usually resolve within 3 to 7 days. Due to reports of loss of consciousness in some adolescents, however, observation is recommended for 15 to 30 minutes in a sitting position after vaccination while still in the clinic.
Because of the vaccine’s association with sexual activity, there may be cultural biases against HPV vaccination. However, it’s important to be vaccinated before any sexual exposure. Multiple studies have shown that starting the HPV immunization series does not result in increased sexual activity or promiscuity. On the other hand, it can serve as an opportune moment to discuss sexual health and values with your pre-teens.