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What is HPV?

Most Americans are probably more familiar with HIV than HPV, or human papilloma virus, although HPV affects millions more people. Like HIV, HPV is also sexually transmitted and it is not curable. Unlike HIV, HPV is not fatal. It is also easily diagnosable in women. HPV is the virus that causes genital warts. It is also responsible for most of the cellular changes that develop into cervical cancer. More than 70 strains of HPV exist, but only 30 of those affect the cervix. Of these, only 2 strains are known to be strongly associated with cervical cancer risk, and 9 strains are associated with moderate risk. Fortunately, cervical cancer is usually diagnosed early enough to be treated and cured. Now, with the new DNA with Pap test, cervical infection with HPV can be detected earlier and women at high risk can be identified and more carefully followed. Women who have this test who have normal Pap smear results, who are not found to have HPV, and who are not at high risk for contracting it, may also be able to have their Pap smears every three years instead of annually. Women should specifically ask their doctors when they need to have their next Pap smear. 

While testing is now available for HPV, doctors vary in opinions about who needs HPV testing, how often, and what to do with that information.  Some physicians use these results to guide treatment decisions in borderline cases; some physicians reserve testing for women at high risk and then recommend a test called colposcopy to further evaluate the cervix if the test is positive.  Most physicians now recommend a baseline HPV test for all women over 30 with repeat testing reserved for women with previously abnormal Pap smears or who are in a high risk category for contracting HPV.

For more information about HPV, click here

Created: 8/29/2005  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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