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January is Cervical Cancer Screening Month

What do you need to know about HPV disease and vaccination?
Diane J. Snyder, MD*

As a gynecologist I spend a lot of my time speaking with patients of all ages about the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). It is amazing the amount of misinformation that patients have about all aspects of the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. I try and counsel patients regarding their risks, how to prevent being infected and then what happens when they find out that they test positive for the virus. I wanted to share some of my "take home" messages about HPV. I encourage patients to learn about the virus from reputable on line resources such as the National Cancer Institute or The American Cancer Society.

  1. It's important to understand the difference between an infection and a disease. Many more people will be infected with HPV than will ever get the diseases associated with the virus. It is a VERY common virus and most men and women who have sex will get HPV some time in their life. Most infection will clear without causing any disease.
  2. HPV is a large group of viruses of which only a few cause disease.
  3. This virus can be spread by just skin to skin contact as well skin to skin contact that occurs during sex
  4. You can NOT get HPV from sharing food/utensils, toilet seats, hot tubs, holding hands. I get asked that question a lot.
  5. The diseases associated with this virus include genital warts (both men and women), cancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina (in women), cancers of the anus and oropharynx (this would include throat, tongue and tonsils and in both men and women) and penile cancer in men.
  6. There is NO test for HPV in men. That is the next most common question.
  7. There is NO blood test for HPV in men or women.
  8. HPV is detected in women during a pap smear of the cervix or a separate swab to test for HPV. IF you test positive for the virus and have a normal pap smear (no abnormal cells), you will have more frequent surveillance with pap smears than other women.
  9. There is NO treatment for HPV. Very common question.
  10. There are now 2 approved vaccines to PREVENT the infection. The vaccines are highly effective if given before any exposure or infection with HPV and recommended. CONDOMS provide some protection against the virus but do not completely prevent infection. Vaccines are the best strategy for prevention.
  11. We can't tell how long someone has had the virus or from whom they got it…I'm asked that a lot as well.

In October, Israel's Health Ministry Director General Professor Ronni Gamzu decided to offer free human papilloma virus vaccines to eighth-grade girls. The ministry said that some 200 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in Israeli women every year, and about half die.
To learn more about What Women Need to Know and other Health and Wellness programs contact health@hadassah.org. Visit www.hadassah.org/womenshealth

*Diane J. Snyder, MD, a gynecologist and a member of the Steering Committee of the Hadassah National Physicians Council, completed her OB/GYN residency at Johns Hopkins and in private practice for over 20 years with a sub specialty interest in pediatric and adolescent gynecology. She is a Graduate of Young Judaea and year course (1977) and decided on medicine after volunteering at Hadassah Medical Organization.

 

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