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What is HPV?

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Human papillomavirus (pap-uh-LOH-muh-veye-ruhss), or HPV, is the name for a group of viruses that includes more than 100 types. More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact.

The types of HPV that infect the genital area are called genital HPV. Over half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. But most people never know it. This is because HPV most often has no symptoms and goes away on its own.

Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. About 20 million Americans ages 15 to 49 currently have HPV.

The controversy surrounding the vaccination of teenage girls for HPV is well known but this week a federal panel of experts recommended 11 and 12-year-old boys be vaccinated, too.

Researchers estimate that 75 to 80 percent of American men and women will be infected with HPV in their lifetime. While many will be asymptomatic, some will lead to abnormal cell growth, leading to cervical and vaginal cancers in women and anal cancer in men. New evidence also links HPV to mouth and throat cancers from oral sex, which is becoming more prevalent among young people. However, some argue against the risk assessment and cost-effectiveness of vaccinating for HPV; it would cost $140 million to vaccinate boys ages 11 and 12, for one year alone.

Although HPV and cervical cancer are a concern for all women, in the U.S., the women with the highest rates of cervical cancer are minority and low-income women. While the numbers of Black women who get cervical cancer are less than their White counterparts, Black women are more likely to die from the disease. Plus, a 2008 study on sexually- transmitted diseases found that almost half of Black girls between ages 15 and 19 had an STD, and about 70 percent of those cases were HPV.

When women die of cervical cancer, it is usually because they have not had a Pap smear in many years, if ever, and their cancer is caught very late. Pap smears detect cervical cell changes early on, helping to save lives. In fact, having a regular screening every 2 to 3 years greatly reduces a woman’s risk of getting cervical cancer. The widespread use of the Pap test has reduced cervical cancer in the U.S. by more than half over the past 30 years.

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