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Body Talks – What is HPV?

The first time I heard of HPV I was 14 years old watching MTV reality TV shows when a commercial for Gardasil came on. Female actors would say why they were choosing to get Gardasil, the less-than-pleasant series of shots that protects women against HPV. A few months later I found myself getting an extremely painful shot in the arm that would supposedly help protect me against cancer, although I didn’t understand what HPV actually was. I also didn’t know how it relates to cervical cancer, let alone what a cervix was at the time. The Gardasil commercials were aimed at getting young women to get the vaccine, but what they didn’t do was give us any information about the STI, or the impact it has on the body.

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus and it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are hundreds of strains of HPV – 40 of which affect genital areas and can be passed through intercourse and oral sex. The virus is so common that almost all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their life, and according to the CDC, 79 million Americans are currently living with HPV with 14 million new infections each year. The trouble with HPV is knowing when you have it, as most of the time women experience no symptoms at all and the virus can ‘hide’ away in the body. Some infections can cause genital warts, which are most likely not harmful and will go away on their own. In all HPV infections, the virus should leave the body within 8-13 months, and during this time it is possible to infect others with HPV. Infections that cause genital warts are considered ‘low risk infections’, while infections that cause cell change are considered ‘high risk infections’. These high-risk infections are what links to cervical cancer. The National Cancer Institute explains that while these types of infections are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases, it does not mean all high-risk HPV infections lead to cervical cancer.

So the question remains, how do you protect yourself against HPV? First condoms (which you can sample all different types by subscribing to WIYB), although HPV can still be transmitted from skin to skin contact during sex even when a condom is worn. Second is the Gardasil shot, which protects you against four types of HPV. This includes the two that are highly associated with developing cervical cancer. The problem with the vaccine for straight ladies, however, is that most men don’t get it. Without men getting the vaccine there is a large population spreading the virus, so tell all the men in your life to help protect women by being a man and getting the Gardasil shot!

Wondering if you have HPV? See your gynecologist or a doctor to get a pap smear (or pap test), which tests for HPV. Pap smears are routine and required over the age of 21. Your gynecologist will lightly scrape cells within your cervix to test for HPV and look for abnormal cell growth. This might seem scary, but all you have to do is take a deep breath, think about your beloved box and it’s over in seconds.

As with any STI, HPV is not something to stress about or feel shame for. Get vaccinated, get tested, use condoms and you are doing your part 😉

WIYB Box Babe
Recent grad, New School


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