Yashoda Valliere / Student Health Education Centre
If you can think back to your ninth-grade sex-ed class, you’ve probably heard of human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 strains of HPV – over 40 of them can infect the genital area (these same strains can also infect the mouth and throat). Some strains can cause genital warts, and others can even cause cancer.
What if I told you that you’ve probably already been infected with HPV?
At some point in our lives, around 75 per cent of us will have an HPV infection without knowing it, but 90 per cent of infections go away by themselves within two years. So why should you care? HPV is the most commonly transmitted STI and, sometimes, it can have deadly consequences. Infection rates are the highest among people in our age group. It can be passed on through contact between genitals, or between genitals and the mouth. Health problems that can be caused by HPV include:
- Genital warts (harmless, medically speaking)
- Cervical cancer
- Oropharyngeal cancer (in the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils)
- Less common cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum, or anus
- Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis – which is essentially like having genital warts in your throat
Thinking about HPV protection is not limited to heterosexual intercourse and applies to anyone who is sexually active in general. So, what can you do to protect yourself? Using condoms and dental dams is a good idea, but these methods are not 100 per cent effective, especially considering that the infection can exist in the surrounding groin area. Another option that you might consider is an HPV vaccine. Two brands of vaccine are currently on the market: Gardasil and Cervarix. They both help prevent infection by certain strains of HPV associated with cancers and those associated with warts. People of any sex can use Gardasil, while Cervarix is specifically for people with a cervix.
If you’re in your late teens to mid-twenties, you may have already been given Gardasil for free in grade eight or grade nine due to a government-funded program. Gardasil is given in three injections over six months, and these injections in our early teens were only administered to girls at the time. It is now known that Gardasil is safe and effective for people of any sex, and it can help prevent not only cervical cancer, but also genital warts, anal cancers and precancerous lesions. Gardasil protects you from four strains of HPV: two of those cause over 70 per cent of cervical cancers, and the other two cause over 90 per cent of genital warts. So, if you’re interested, it might be worth checking out whether you’ve already had the vaccine or not. Until June 2013, females born in 1993 and 1994 can get the vaccine for free from Toronto Public Health. Everyone else must pay for the vaccine – it is not covered by OHIP, but it may be covered by your parents’ health insurance plan. If you would like to have the vaccinations done at the Student Wellness Centre, drop in to MUSC B101 to book an appointment.
At the end of the day, vaccinations and anything else that affects your body is 100% your personal choice. No matter what you decide, it’s good to have the facts to make an informed decision and keep yourself and your partners safe.