It’s been strongly linked to cervical cancer. Eighty percent of American women will be diagnosed with it before the age of 50. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a problem that’s been seen, until now, as a female problem. New research, however, shows that 50 percent of American men are infected with HPV, and the virus can cause cancer in men, as well.
The rising number of infected men, though, is no mystery, according to Dr. Mary-Ann Bowl-Witchey, an obstetrician and gynecologist with St. John Medical Center in Owasso.
“Gardasil, the first vaccine for HPV, when it originally came out, was limited to young women because we were the ones who got cancer. It’s now been approved by the FDA for young men, as well,” she says.
In fact, until vaccines were approved for use in men, HPV treatment was solely focused on women.
HPV is tougher to diagnose for men as well. While some of the less dangerous forms of the virus produce genital warts, most strains initially express no outward signs. Doctors can’t see it, their male patients are unaware of it and the problem goes unsolved – all while more and more women are being vaccinated every day. Now that vaccines have been approved for young males, doctors believe the number of men infected with HPV will begin to decline.
The vaccines aren’t foolproof, though. There are more than 40 strains of the virus. They’re constantly changing, making them difficult but definitely not impossible, to vaccinate against. HPV strains mutate in the same way as flu strains. Of the 40 known strains, though, only about 15 can lead to other health complications. And in almost 90 percent of cases, the body’s immune system cleans out HPV within two years.
As it is with so many health issues, education is the key to locking down HPV.
“I think that public awareness of HPV is probably more common. Now that we have vaccines, they’re advertised and the public is more aware of HPV,” says Dr. Taneisha Buffin, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Integris Southwest Hospital.
“I think also that we’ve always focused on cervical cancer screening. Now we’re focused on getting the younger population vaccinated and catching some of those high-risk types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer. I wouldn’t say that HPV is so dangerous. It’s just about making the public aware and getting people screened.
“If you find HPV early enough, there are things we can do to treat it and try to prevent it from progressing to a cancer.”