Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a restful holiday weekend (for those who celebrate the various holidays around the vernal equinox by whatever name).
April is STI Awareness Month, and over the course of this month, I’m going to post some entries about some of the sexually transmitted infections (STIs) out there. (Note: STD stands for sexually transmitted disease, and the meaning is the same as STI.) Each entry (I’m hoping) will ideally present one or two individual stories (to include this one), along with symptoms and available treatments.
image from CDC page
Today’s entry is about human papillomavirus, or HPV for short. Before I get into details about HPV, let me share two instances with you. The first is about me.
Yep, me. I was married when I contracted HPV. I had been married for the better part of a decade at that point and I turned up with an abnormal Pap test result. (Pap is short for Papanicolaou and the test screens for cervical cancer). Turned out, I was positive for HPV and I had precancerous (“squamous”) cells. I knew that I had only been with one person sexually during the entire time I had been with my ex-husband, and from the time that he and I met…so at that point, almost 12 years. I had suspected many times that he had stepped out, but never made the accusation. Despite suspicions of unfaithfulness, I had no reason to think I had any sexually transmitted infection. I had no discernible symptoms of anything, and the abnormal Pap was my first indication that something was amiss.
The second instance is about a friend of mine (straight male, HIV-negative, no other STIs contracted ever) who thought he had hemorrhoids off and on for a couple of years, just based upon the discernible symptoms that he had. It wasn’t until the lesions went beyond his rectum, and a physician was able to visibly see them, did the correct diagnosis (and appropriate treatment) get given. He had no idea what he had was actually an STI, and he had no reason to think that he had contracted an STI because he considered himself a “responsible” sexual person. Today, he probably knows more about HPV than he never really wanted to know. Turns out, his condition was precancerous. In some ways, it’s good the growths happened because he could’ve possibly been cancerous within 5 years
Both instances noted above present HPV in two of its different strains. There are more than 150 strains of HPV (not all related to sex), and HPV has what are known as high-risk and low-risk strains. In my noted situation above, I contracted one of the high-risk strains of HPV. There are no discernible symptoms, and it must be diagnosed by a physician (for women, typically by a gynecologist during a Pap and pelvic examination). In the noted instance of what happened with my friend, he contracted genital warts, which are generally from a low-risk strain of HPV, though not necessarily (as his case clearly shows). Generally speaking, genital warts presents as the only strains of HPV with visible symptoms; for other strains of HPV (low- or high-risk), there is no testing currently available for men.
Treatment of HPV depends on the strain involved, and remember — here, I am talking specifically about sexually transmitted HPV (which can also be passed on to a newborn during childbirth). In my circumstances, I underwent a colposcopy and a LEEP procedure to cut out the precancerous cells. In my friend’s case, he underwent surgical removal (since the lesions were not only external, but deep into his rectum and lower colon). These are two possible treatment options available (specific to the strains involved). For genital warts, there are other available treatment options, depending on how mild or severe the case may be. For other strains, there are different treatment options available also.
Most importantly, HPV is extremely common, and needs to be discussed openly and without shame. Particularly now that we have vaccinations available to prevent against a few of the most common low- and high-risk strains. These vaccines (most notably Gardisil) are available to adolescent boys and girls, for prior to sexual initiation. The vaccine is a 3-shot series that the CDC recommends should be given to ALL kids starting between ages 11 and 12.
This entry just touches the surface of the topic of HPV. If you’re interested in learning more about HPV, please visit the CDC’s page dedicated to HPV.