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Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and its vaccines

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Active, positive and responsible sex is undoubtedly one of the pleasures adults enjoy. If protecting yourself against sexually transmitted infections is on your priority list, you will be interested to learn more about the human papilloma virus (HPV) and its vaccines.

Le virus du papillome humain (VPH) et ses vaccins

Risks we cannot see

It is no secret that sexuality is more interesting when performed with confidence, freedom and respect for oneself and one’s partner. Nowadays, sexual intimateness begins at a much younger age than it did some fifty years ago. In our contemporary society, although sexually explicit images can be seen just about everywhere, some aspects of sexuality remain less visible. We can think of the human papilloma virus (HPV) and resulting genital warts that become a part of life for many people, frequently without their knowledge. Let’s learn a bit more about this little intruder and discover how to avoid contracting it before it decides to pay us a visit.       

What is HPV?

HPV is one of the sexually transmitted infections (STI) that were previously known as sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Although misunderstood by many people, it is the most widespread STI in North America and throughout the world. Approximately 75% of sexually active men and women will experience at least one HPV infection during their lifetime. With most people, the immune system (our natural defence system) successfully eradicates the infection. But the infection sets in longer and may cause various health problems among people whose immune system is weaker. 

The HPV family is extensive, with approximately 120 different varieties. As with any virus, HPV is highly contagious. It is spread through contact with the skin and during vaginal, oral or anal sex with an infected person. A person may be infected with HPV without displaying any visible symptoms, and thus transmit it to another person without knowing it.

HPV health risks

An HPV infection can cause various health problems, both mild and serious, depending on the type of HPV in question. It must be remembered that there are many carriers of the virus who do not display any particular symptom. 

Condylomata (genital warts)

Condylomata are small warts caused by an HPV infection. They are visible as small bumps or groups of bumps, shaped like cauliflower or venereal warts that are skin colour. They do not normally cause any pain, but they may cause itching. It is not unusual for these small lesions to be detected by a doctor during a gynaecological exam, with the person having never noticed their presence beforehand.   

Genital warts may be found on different parts of the male and female bodies, including:

  • vulva:
  • vagina;
  • scrotum;
  • penis;
  • urethra;
  • cervix;
  • anus;
  • rectum;
  • thighs.

There are also lower risk viruses that produce warts on the hands and feet.

Warts and condylomata are not dangerous to our health, but are often deemed bothersome. If you have genital warts, your doctor will be able to inform you about the various treatments available to make them disappear.

Cancer

Some forms of HPV considered higher risk can have more serious consequences on your health, such as some forms of cancer. HPV present in the cells transform them into abnormal cells, and sometimes into precancerous cells which, if left untreated, could eventually lead to cancer. 

Cervical cancer is a serious and sometimes deadly illness that can affect women of all ages. Among women aged 20 to 44, cervical cancer is the second most frequent, after breast cancer. Most cervical cancer is caused by the occurrence of HPV infection. This is why it is so important to introduce strategies to help avoid contracting HPV and developing an infection.  

Other cancers can also be linked to HPV, such as throat cancer, mouth cancer, and cancer of the anus and penis among men (this cancer is rarer, however).

How can I reduce my personal risk?

Below are a few tips on how you can reduce your risk of contracting HPV and suffering the consequences:

  • Have a gynaecological examination. For women, the best way to learn if you are infected with HPV or have abnormal or precancerous cells is to have a regular Pap test. If you are 21 or older and are sexually active, you should have this test every one to three years.  
  • Use a condom during sex. This is the only effective contraceptive method to protect you from an HPV infection. Remember, however, that some areas are not protected by a condom, such as the upper thighs. Do not assume that a condom will protect you completely against HPV.  
  • Reduce your number of sexual partners. As many people are infected by the HPV virus without knowing it, adopting responsible sexual behaviour is an excellent strategy to reduce your risk.  
  • Stop smoking. Smoking tobacco is also one of the risk factors in cervical cancer.

Vaccines: the best way to protect yourself

Vaccines cannot protect us from all illnesses, particularly in the case of STI’s, but they can against HPV! There are now vaccines available on the market to prevent HPV infection. These vaccines were initially designed to protect women against cervical and uterus cancer, and against abnormal and precancerous lesions. Both safe and effective, they provide protection against several types of HPV, including those that most often cause genital warts and cancer. But these vaccines do not protect against STI’s that are not caused by HPV, and they do not take away the need to conduct periodic screening through a gynaecological examination.

The vaccine may be given to young girls as young as 9, to adolescents and women up to the age of 45. Men aged from 9 to 26 may also be candidates for the vaccine to prevent genital warts and anal cancer. In order to ensure maximum effectiveness, the scheduled dosage must be followed, which includes a total of three injections. 

There is reason to believe that vaccinating children, adolescents and young adults is a measure that can greatly reduce the spread of HPV in the population. So don’t hesitate to take advantage of this vaccine for you and your children. Your pharmacist can provide you with more information on this subject, and a doctor’s visit will help you to make a more informed decision.

When it comes to sexual health, prevention is always the best option. As nothing is more satisfying than the warmth of human contact, why not take the steps to ensure this activity is not only agreeable, but also safe!


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