Why talking about HPV (and other STIs) matters

While STI stigma is not limited to HPV, when you think about the fact that most people will get HPV in their lifetimes, it’s a bit odd that we so rarely hear it brought up.

Indeed, even though most of us have heard of HPV, many people don’t really know what it is, despite the fact there are school-age vaccinations against it, and around 80% of us will have it at some point.

But, in answering why we should be talking about HPV more, we need to look at the facts.

Suneela Vegunta, M.D., a women’s health physician at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, tells us: ‘There are millions of people who have experienced this infection.

‘There are about 200 different types of HPV and only 15 of them can cause precancerous and cancerous lesions.

‘Other HPV types can cause benign infections such as warts and are spread by skin contact. Certain types of HPV can cause benign genital warts.

‘In addition, many individuals who get the infection will clear this infection within 12 to 24 months.

‘HPV infection is mostly transient and they come and go without the infected individuals being aware of having it. Most HPV types do not cause any symptoms, unlike other STIs.’

Dr. Suneela adds that, while most people will clear the infection without any medical intervention, some cases of HPV can persist and turn into cancers, including cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers, as well as cancer of the penis and oral cancer.

‘HPV is a virus that likes lymphoid tissue,’ professor Mark McGurk, co-founder of the Head & Neck Cancer Foundation says.

‘The back of the mouth is protected by a thick ring of lymphoid tissue i.e. tonsils and base of the tongue.

‘The role of this ring of tissue is to guard the entrance to the gastric tract from adverse agents taken via mouth. The viruses can cause some genetic abnormalities that make cancer development more likely.’

Mark is keen to stress that most HPV infections, like HPV18 and 16, which have a link to cancer both in the cervix and the mouth, will clear up on their own.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that, according to the NHS, ‘high risk’ forms of HPV are found in more than 99% of cervical cancers.

Stats like this are why HPV vaccines are offered to all students aged 12 to 13 in England – even though most cases clear up on their own, any protection we can get against catching it is still very much worthwhile.

Zoya Ali, a reproductive health scientist and sexual health educator, tells us: ‘In the current UK vaccination programme, the HPV vaccine is available to all young
people aged 12-13, usually through school.

Most of us got close to no sex education in school

‘Last year, research by Cancer Research UK found that cervical cancer rates in those vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 13 were 87% lower than in an unvaccinated population.

‘Although it is recommended to get the vaccine at a younger age before you are sexually active. If you have missed it, it is beneficial to get it even after you have started being sexually active. If you are eligible and missed the vaccine, you can get it free on the NHS until your 25th birthday.

‘People assigned male at birth who have sex with men aged up to 45 are also eligible for free HPV vaccines from sexual health and HIV clinics.’

So with all that very important information in mind, why don’t we talk about HPV?

Well first off, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for there to be big gaps in our sexual health knowledge because the sex education many (if not all) of us got when we were young has left a lot to be desired.

Zoya says: ‘The fact that most of us got close to no sex education in school affects the amount of information we have regarding our sexual health and how proactive we are with it.’

Dr Susanna Unsworth, the in-house doctor for intimate wellbeing brand, INTIMINA, doesn’t believe the infection’s link to certain types of cancer is talked about as much as another potential outcome of HPV.

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