But Isn’t HPV a Really Common and Really Harmless Disease?


It is true that many cases of HPV infection are benign and nothing to worry about. There are many different types of HPV, and depending upon which type you have and your individual health tendencies, you may have one or more types without even knowing it. There are over 200 types (strains) of HPV that have been identified by researchers. The majority of these are harmless.

However, there are some types that can lead to serious conditions in some individuals such as cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, and head/neck cancers such as those of the throat, mouth, and larynx. In rare cases, some HPV strains can cause a condition called “recurrent respiratory papillomatosis” or RRP, a persistent and serious respiratory illness that is difficult to treat and cure.

Because of the serious consequences to some people of HPV infection, it is important for all people who are sexually active to be educated about the virus.

HPV is believed to be the most common of all sexually-transmitted diseases; researchers now know that over half of all people in the world will be infected with at least one of the sexually-transmitted types of HPV in his or her lifetime! Many people will acquire more than one strain.

Of all types of HPV, only about 40 are sexually-transmitted strains. These are only transmitted by sexual contact. Many of these cause small infections that may not even be noticed, and clear up in a few months with no lingering symptoms at all.

But a few of these are serious and can cause consequences that are more harmful. Such consequences are a threat to both women and men, gay or straight.

We know that HPV types 16 and 18 are considered “high-risk”: they are responsible for at least 70% of all cervical cancers! For this reason, there is now a vaccine available for young women who are sexually active. Two brands are available: Cervarix and Gardasil. (The Gardasil vaccine is available for young men also to guard against genital warts – a condition which is usually harmless but unsightly.)

Two other very high risk types of HPV virus, for which there is no vaccine, are types 31 and 45.

In the past few years, researchers have identified other strains of HPV which they consider to be at a high risk of causing lingering health risks. These are types 33, 35, 39, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, with more being identified all the time. In addition, several types are believed to present at least some risk of the development of cancers: 26, 53, 66, 68, 73, 82. These have been labeled as “probable high-risk” strains. Researchers continue to study the connections between HPV and cancer and other serious diseases, both to be able to advise people about how to avoid HPV infection, and to explore ways of combating it such as more effective vaccines to protect people who choose to be sexually active.