Human Papilloma Virus ( HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus. There are over a 120 different types of HPV, of which about 40 can infect the male and female genital tract. Some types ( in particular type 6 and 11) can cause genital warts. Although annoying and unsightly, warts are usually harmless and treatable. However some forms do not necessarily cause visible warts, but instead infect the skin of the vagina, anus, cervix or throat, causing changes in the cells which can become cancerous.
The most common types that are associated with genital tract cancers, is type 16 and 18, although 31 and 45 are also important. The virus is passed on through skin to skin contact which means it can be passed on even during protected sex, and of course, as more people are performing oral sex, usually unprotected, we are now seeing more cancer causing HPV infection, in the mouth. This explains the recent and worrying rise in head and neck cancers.
Oral cancers used to be limited to patients who smoke and drink a lot of alcohol, but studies have confirmed that infection with HPV type 16, is also a risk factor. The virus usually infects the back of the throat , tonsils, base of tongue and the oropharynx and occur in younger people, especially white males.
We can now test for HPV with a simple and painless swab test, that can detect the different types of HPV. There is already a cervical screening program in place that screens for cervical cancers caused by HPV. The same test can be used to detect HPV in the throat.
Due to the risk of developing cancer from HPV, I recommend vaccination with Gardasil, to all my male and female sexually active patients. Gardasil prevents infection with the most common and dangerous types of HPV, 6, 11, 16 and 18. This prevents you from getting infected with the cancer causing strains and significantly cuts your risk of developing HPV related cancers. Therefore I feel it is an absolute no brainer. Get vaccinated today!
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