August is HPV Awareness month, a time to create awareness about human papillomavirus (HPV). Unfortunately, community knowledge about HPV and vaccination against this virus in South Africa is lacking, amongst both men and women.
What is HPV?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), HPV is a common virus or infection that is spread from one person to another through close skin contact i.e. vaginal, anal or oral sex and sometimes just skin to skin contact without any penetration. Men or women who have anal sex and become infected with HPV can also develop anal cancer. People can get infected with HPV by having sex with someone who is infected with HPV, even if the person has no visible signs of having an infection. There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which at least 14 are cancer-causing (also known as high-risk type).
Symptoms of HPV
Symptoms can vary in men and women. Some men who get infected with the virus never show any physical symptoms. Others may develop genital warts which usually grow on the penile shaft and have a cauliflower-like appearance. With men who engage in anal sex, warts may appear around the anus as a group of bumps or as a small bump and in some cases, if left untreated, this infection can lead to anal cancer.
For those who engage in oral sex, an HPV infection that has been left undiagnosed or untreated can lead to cancerous tumours at the back of the throat. HPV itself is not cancer but the virus, once it infects certain human cells can cause those cells to become unhealthy and develop into tumour or cancer cells. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI)Many people who have other STIs, including HIV, may also have been infected with HPV and the infection is often silent. The chance of developing HPV-associated cancers is increased in people living with HIV or other people with weakened immune systems. In people living with HIV, even once they are on effective treatment, call ART (antiretroviral therapy) , the risk of developing an HPV associated cancer remains higher than in HIV uninfected people.
HPV can be prevented by taking the HPV vaccine, however, HPV vaccination is not common in South Africa, with few men and women having been vaccinated. The vaccine only works to prevent HPV infection and cannot help to prevent cancer once a person already has HPV. It is common for the virus to just clear on its own without needing any medical attention, but that usually depends on how strong a person’s immune system is. Doctors can also treat the symptoms caused by HPV such as warts but they cannot specifically treat the virus.
There is now an available DNA test that can be used to confirm if someone has HPV infection. HPV DNA can be found by doing a simple swab of the anal area. However, these DNA tests are still expensive and not widely available, particularly in the public sector in South Africa. For now, the best available screening for men who have anal sex, is to have an anal pap smear.
Speak to your Yellow Dot Doctor about screening for HPV.