What Every Woman Should Know about HPV
This article originally appeared in Be Well, a health
information newsletter published for members of the Greater Marlborough
Several recent studies have shown that many women do not fully understand the
human papillomavirus or HPV. As a result, there are many myths about this very
common, sexually transmitted virus.
HPV is not one virus. In fact, there are 230 different types of HPV. Some
types lay dormant and do not cause any problems, some cause genital warts, while
a few types have been linked to a woman's increased risk of developing cervical
cancer. The presence of HPV is determined through a Pap smear, which can show
cell abnormalities on the cervix.
"People don't realize how common HPV is. I estimate that 40 to 60 percent of
individuals carry the virus. It is very hard to get through life today and not
be exposed to it," explains Peter Davidow, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist
on staff at Marlborough Hospital. "I emphasize to my patients that HPV is not a
result of bad hygiene or sexual promiscuity. It is a virus that happens to be
sexually transmitted and just about anyone can get it."
A second area of misunderstanding is HPV's link to cervical cancer. Although
only about 20 of the 230 different types of HPV are associated with an increased
risk of cervical cancer, many women believe that all HPVs will ultimately lead
to cancer. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
estimates that only one out of 1,000 women with HPV will develop invasive
"The biggest myth as far as HPV is concerned is that it will always lead to
cervical cancer," says Kerri Osterhaus-Houle, MD, an obstetrician and
gynecologist who shares an office with Dr. Davidow. "Very, very few cases lead
to cervical cancer. There are only a handful of high-risk HPV types, and even
then, with close monitoring, the odds of developing cervical cancer are small.
Most HPVs cause little or no serious problem."
Both Dr. Davidow and Dr. Osterhaus-Houle recommend that women get yearly Pap
smears. If the test shows cell abnormalities, further testing will be performed
to identify if the cause is HPV, and if so, what type of HPV is present.
"If the Pap smear shows the presence of HPV, follow up treatment will mainly
depend on the type of HPV found. Often times it will resolve itself with no
harmful effects. Other times we might want to perform a colposcopy or even a
biopsy for further diagnosis," Dr. Osterhaus explains. "Continued, close
monitoring is often the best approach, which is why it is so important for women
to get their annual Pap smears."
Although there is currently no cure for HPV, a new vaccine called Gardasil is
now being tested and may be available within the next year or two.