Current research shows that more than half
of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time in their lives. New
screening technologies, vaccines, and updated guidelines have brought many changes in recent
years to the fields of HPV research and cervical cancer prevention. For insight on these and
other related topics, we turn to Dr. Hunter Handsfield- a physician, veteran researcher,
and expert in the field of sexually transmitted infections. Dr. Handsfield is with the University
of Washington Center for AIDs and STDs and for 25 years, he directed the STD Control Program
for the Public Health Department in Seattle. Dr. Handsfield is also a member of the American
Social Health Associations Board of Directors. Well the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
recommend that the partners of people with HPV need not get examined unless they notice
something wrong. This is a little bit controversial and it
surprises a lot of people. “Gee, if my partner has this STD why shouldn’t I get checked for
it? The problem is that HPV infections are no more common than the partners of people with known infections then there are anybody else. Having or getting genital area HPV is normal.
It is not desired but it happens to a very large majority of all sexually active people
at least once. And some of us have several infections. Fortunately, the large majority
of HPV infections stay asymptomatic, never cause disease, and go away eventually. The
fact that a minority of infections can cause important health problems is of course an
issue that needs to be dealt with. And it’s one of the reasons the vaccine reports to
help with various complications. But people should not look at HPV as a surprising abnormality.
It is something that essentially is inevitable. People need to take a common sense, level-headed approach to prevent serious outcomes. But otherwise, don’t lose a lot of sleep over
it. In fact, this can be thought of as analogous to the fact that we all carry potentially
virulent bacteria on our skin. Part of us have strep or staph from time to time on our
skin and yes, once and a while those things can cause dangerous and life-threatening infections.
But carrying the bacteria is not abnormal. It really is, in many ways, the same as HPV.
By the time HPV is diagnosed, because of an abnormal pap smear, because genital warts
appeared, the infection has typically been present for months and sometimes even years.
Therefore, the sex partner is more likely than not to be sharing the same infection
already. So at that point, there’s really no point in ceasing sexual activity or beginning
to use condoms if they haven’t been used before. The apparently uninfected person needs to
be on the alert for symptoms and signs such as the development of warts which then can
be treated. But if he/she remains asymptomatic, this really should not be a particular concern.
It can cause a lot of emotional stress. It can cause a lot of, “where did this come from
and how long have I had it” but the fact is that HPV is a chronic infection quite asymptomatic.
It can sit silent for a long period of time and then show up and the new diagnosis of
an HPV infection in a monogamous couple does not necessarily imply that either of them
have been sexually unfaithful. In the standpoint of later transmission, there’s
really no need to distant past HPV infections that have resolved and not caused any current
symptoms or health problems. If you have questions about HPV vaccines,
visit www.ashasexualhealth.org to learn more.