The stats are sobering: about 75 per cent of sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, with over 100 types.
Some types of HPV are low-risk, causing genital warts, and others are high-risk causing cancer. For men, there is a risk of cancer in the anus and penis. In women, there is a risk of abnormal cervical cell changes, as well as anal cancer. There has also been a rise of cancer in the back of the throat, including the tonsils, base of the tongue and soft palate in both men and women.
As I write this, in the midst of Canada’s first HPV Prevention Week, I think the best way to tell the story is through someone who has been told “you have cancer.”
Beth Dangerfield was 37 years old with a young daughter and she says her “close call” (she is fine now – read her whole story) was a powerful learning experience and reality check. In Beth’s words:
“The overriding theme, and perhaps the most distressing part about my story is that there were so many things I didn’t know. That there were things I could have done to protect myself and my family from going through this very stressful experience…
- I didn’t know that 4/5 sexually active women in Canada get HPV at least once in their life.
- I didn’t know that most people with HPV have no symptoms.
- I didn’t know that you can carry HPV without symptoms for a very long time.
- I didn’t know that HPV can sometimes resolve spontaneously and on its own…
- So basically I didn’t know anything…
If you are interested in decreasing your chances of getting cancer, here is what you could do (what I wish I’d done sooner) – call your family doc and ask about the HPV vaccine.”
The good news? As Canadians, we have access to safe, effective vaccines to protect against HPV infection. If you’re vaccinated it will help prevent future infections and will decrease recurrences if you’ve already had HPV.
The really good news? All provinces and territories have publicly funded school-based HPV vaccination programs for girls 9 to 13 years of age (grades 4 to 7). All provinces and territories also include boys in their vaccination programs.
I recommend receiving Gardasil 9, which protects against two types of low-risk HPV that cause 90 per cent of genital warts, and seven types of high-risk HPV that cause 90 per cent of HPV-related cancers. Receiving the vaccine during the school-age years is best, but I also recommend it to older patients (both male and female) who are sexually active.
HPV and HPV-related cancers are preventable. Whether you’re male or female, it’s never too late to receive the vaccine. If you’re sexually active at any age, please talk to your doctor or health care professional.