Separate fact from fiction by understanding more about the sexually transmitted disease (STD) that four in five women will contract in some form and at some time during their lives. The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which is responsible for virtually 98 percent of all cervical cancer cases worldwide, is still baffling scientists today. Dr. Anna Sepiolo tells Wellness World how and why HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the world today.
Cervical cancer is the second most common female cancer worldwide. Around 50-55 cases of cervical cancer are reported annually in the UAE. To add to the alarming stats, there is a scarcity of data from the Middle Eastern regarding the knowledge and attitude of women towards the HPV infection, cervical cancer prevention and the HPV vaccine. Also, since HPV comes under the purview of a STD, no medical insurance covers it.
There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause genital warts; the other types (called High-Risk strains) can cause cancer. It should be noted, however, that HPV is a different virus from HIV and HSV that causes herpes. According to the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi, cervical cancer is the second leading cancer and the seventh highest cause for female mortality in the UAE.
It’s scary but 99.7 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) affecting 75 to 80 percent of sexually active adults at some time in their lives. The good news is that usually the virus causes no health problems. Even if you’re a high-risk type, regular Pap tests can massively reduce chances of developing HPV and consequently cervical cancer. The bad news is that many of us are still in the dark about HPV and it’s time to face the facts.
Study of the UAE
A cross-sectional survey of 640 women aged 18-50 years was conducted in the Al-Ain district of the UAE using convenience sampling. Women with previous diagnoses of cervical cancer, non-residents of UAE, younger than 18 or older than 50 years of age and those unable to speak Arabic or English were excluded from the study. A logistic regression analysis was performed to assess the association of knowledge regarding independent factors like age, education, lifestyle factors etc.
Results of the survey
Only 29% of sampled women had even heard of the HPV infection. Only 15.3% women recognised it as an STD. Only about 22% women had also heard of the HPV vaccine. Three quarter of the women in the study thought that cervical cancer could be prevented. About 28% recognized that a vaccine is a preventive measure against cervical cancer. Age and their husband’s level of education were found to be significant factors after adjusting for a women’s age.
The study concluded that the knowledge about HPV, both regarding infection and vaccine, is low in the UAE.
Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV. It is commonly spread during vaginal, anal and even oral sex and scarily enough, the infected person can display no symptoms or signs of infection.
A fact worth considering is that anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if they’ve have had sex with only one person or been in a monogamous relationship their whole lives.
Therefore, unless a couple were both virgins when they got together, each are at risk of acquiring whatever infection the other has been exposed to, including HPV. This wily infection can lie dormant and undetected for an unspecified amount of time, which means people could be in a committed relationship for a number of years before either partner experiences any symptoms related to HPV.
‘It is important to ask a man in a new relationship whether he’s ever had an ex girl friend who had abnormalities in her Pap tests. If the answer is yes, the likelihood that he’s had a high-risk HPV type in the past (or still has) is high.’
- Get vaccinated (this is a safe and effective way to minimise risks, three shots over 6 months and they are available for both men and women
- Get screened for cervical cancer – routine pap smears up to the age of 29 years and below.
- All women who are aged 30 and above should get regular Pap smears as well as HPV tested
- Routine cervical cancer screenings even during pregnancy.
- Stay alert. Unusual symptoms like bleeding between periods, painful intercourses, bleeding after intercourse should all be investigated.
- Sexually active adults should try to use condoms (they don’t fully protect against HPV but minimise risks of most other STDs and can lower the chances of contracting HPV immeasurably). Stay in monogamous relationships where possible.
There any many types of HPV. In most cases, a HPV infection will go away on its own without causing any health problems. A low-risk HPV strain can cause genital warts (small cauliflower-like-shaped lesions on the genital area that can grow to larger sizes, especially if the infected person’s immune system is low.) An infected person may develop cancer only if the infection persists. Cancer takes years to develop, even decades after infection but people may not know that they’re infected because they’ve displayed no symptoms. HPV can cause cervical cancer but also other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and the throat.
So Michael Douglas didn’t really admit to having HPV. Or did he? In an interview he was asked if he regretted smoking and drinking, since in the past that’s what Douglas blamed his throat cancer on. Douglas answered, “No, because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from too much cunnilingus with too many partners.
Pamela Anderson contracted hepatitis C and HPV from ex-husband Tommy Lee, though Pam maintains not through sexual contact. She said “When Tommy did his blood work, the doctor told him, ‘You have hepatitis C and genital warts, and you need to tell Pamela.’ But he never told me.” That became problematic when the two shared the same tattoo needle and of course, had unprotected sex.
Farrah Fawcett, died of anal cancer in 2009. She had been diagnosed with the disease in 2006. A study showed 90% of anal cancers are caused by HPV. The same study says Gardasil (an approved vaccine against HPV infection that can be given to girls and women from age 9 to 26) can lower chances of high-risk HPVs that can cause anal, rectal as well as cervical cancers and cites Fawcett as an example.
Evita Peron, the dynamic Latina and second wife of Argentinian leader Juan Peron, died in 1952 of cervical cancer in her early 30s. All cervical cancers are caused by high-risk HPVs and ironically, Peron’s first wife had also died of cervical cancer at age 28 and Eva’s mother died of the disease at age 77.
Paris Hilton. It’s official; she has genital herpes, caused by a milder strain of HPV. In news that is shocking to no one, this Hollywood B-list hot potato has been infected since at least 2007. The media got their hands on her medical prescription for Valtrex, a herpes medicine, and that’s how the world got to know about her HPV infection.
Robin Williams. It’s not just the sleazy celebs that catch STD’s, but also the funny ones. Robin Williams, who committed suicide last year after battling clinical depression, was sued by a cocktail waitress who claimed that during Williams’ first marriage; he had an extramarital affair with her and knowingly infected her with HPV and genital herpes during this period.
David Hasselhoff has suffered from genital herpes, caused by HPV since the mid-1980s. Hasselhoff’s infection has been known since his divorce from wife Pamela Bach in 2006, when she claimed he had been infected since their marriage in 1989.
Dr. Anna Sepiolo is an Obstetrician Gynaecologist and Board Certified by the American Academy of Anti-Ageing and Regenerative Medicine at The Dubai London Specialty Hospital. She has a focus on gynaecology, wellness, longevity based on nutritional and natural hormone treatments.