Written by Britney Nguyen, Edited by Nikhil Chakravarty, Edited by Courtney Coleman
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most widespread sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States today. As of 2022, approximately 14 million people in the United States are infected by HPV each year. It can be spread through close skin-to-skin contact and any oral or sexual contact. Although HPV may be one of the most prevalent STIs in the country, many people may not be aware that it is also the cause of most cervical cancers (1). In this article, we aim to inform about the association between HPV and cervical cancer, including statistics, treatment, and, most importantly, prevention.
Some of the most complicated aspects of HPV are that the infection is commonly asymptomatic and that there are no available antiviral treatments. Different strains of HPV are associated with varying symptoms among individuals. One of the only symptoms linked to infection with either HPV types 6 or 11 is genital warts (2). Genital warts may appear as a single or cluster of raised or flat bumps on the genital area or the skin around the genitals (3). These warts can be diagnosed by a medical professional and can be treated with prescribed medications or laser ablation therapy. On the other hand, symptoms such as weight loss, vaginal discomfort, as well as back, pelvic, and leg pain are symptoms of invasive cervical cancer caused by HPV type 16 and HPV type 18, which may take up to 20 years to develop after initial infection if the virus remains in the body (3). Treatment for cervical cancer includes chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery to remove the precancerous cells. Nevertheless, it is best to avoid and prevent HPV by learning how to protect yourself and others from infection.
The most important methods of prevention include vaccination, the proper use of contraceptives, and routine screenings and checkups. Approximately 90% of cervical cancers, one of the top five most common cancers among women, are caused by HPV infection (2). Cervical cancer is highly prevalent in lower-income communities due to lower access to cervical screenings. To address these existing health disparities, access to contraceptives, education, Pap smears, and vaccines must be improved. According to the National Cancer Institute, women who were vaccinated against HPV around the ages of 9-12 had a 90% reduction in the risk of developing cervical cancer (3). The vaccine has less of an impact if received at an older age and can no longer prevent infection after sexual contact. Furthermore, to prevent the virus from causing cervical cancer, it is crucial for women to get a Pap smear every three years starting at the age of 21 to detect cervical precancers and cancer cells early. Fully vaccinated and routinely screened adults have a lower chance of developing cervical cancer than those who use only one prevention method, as seen in Figure 1 (4).
It is crucial for everyone to be aware of the impacts of HPV beyond simply being a highly prevalent STI. Its ability to present as a nearly asymptomatic infection and its close link to cervical cancer development highlights the need for the adoption of effective prevention and screening methods. The most effective ways to prevent HPV infection are to receive the HPV vaccine and to routinely receive Pap smear tests at regular intervals. Although HPV can have devastating short- and long-term effects, by adopting these simple prevention methods, we can reduce the impact and spread of this disease in our community.
1. Trottier, Helen, and Eduardo L. Franco. “The Epidemiology of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection.” Vaccine, Elsevier, 13 Dec. 2005, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X05010182?casa_token=DO4BQfRXANYAAAAA%3AEPg0D6vR4dOrlWrnChjdsXbGMjtOuM6iorJQL9vAJ1AuuaKqTHO3U38aH8sQL2VnMnZ0Aj IXNWU.
2. “Cervical Cancer.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 22 Feb. 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cervical-cancer.
3. “HPV and Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, National Cancer Institute, 12 Sept. 2022, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer.
4. Brisson, Marc, et al. “Impact of HPV Vaccination and Cervical Screening on Cervical Cancer Elimination: A Comparative Modelling Analysis in 78 Low-Income and Lower-Middle-Income Countries.” The Lancet, Elsevier, 30 Jan. 2020, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30068- 4/fulltext.
This post is not a substitute for professional advice. If you believe that you may be experiencing a medical emergency, please contact your primary care physician, or go to the nearest Emergency Room. Results from ongoing research is constantly evolving. This post contains information that was last updated on November 21, 2022.
Britney Nguyen is currently an intended public health major undergraduate at UC Berkeley.
Nikhil Chakravarty is a second-year MPH student specializing in Epidemiology at UCLA Fielding and also received his BS in Microbiology and Immunology from UC Irvine.
Courtney Coleman is a master's degree candidate in biology at Harvard and Co-President of Students vs. Pandemics.