What is HPV?
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a virus that can affect any part of the human body. It primarily affects the genital organs, which is why it is commonly known as Genital Human Papilloma Virus (GHPV).
The virus is only transmitted through sexual relationships. However, what many people do not realize is that this refers to both penetrative, naked foreplay and oral sexual relationships, and that both can increase the woman’s risk of contracting HPV.
The virus can manifest itself in two forms: benign (low-risk) and aggressive (high-risk). If it is benign (low-risk), the symptoms will manifest themselves in the form of genital warts and other STI’s, which can be easily treated. However, if the strain of virus is more aggressive (high-risk), it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, leading to cervical cancer.
The virus itself is harmless as long as it doesn’t produce any changes to the body’s cells. Therefore, quite often, we test women for viruses and find that the results are positive for HPV, whether it is high-risk or low-risk strain. However, as long as there is no evidence of cell changes, we are happy to arrange a follow-up appointment and warn the lady that their partners should also be tested.
Note: It is extremely important that all women (or men) advise their partners if they have contracted HPV, STIs or any other illness that may put their health (or their future sexual partners’ health) at risk.
If a man is engaging in sexual activity with a partner who is carrying the high-risk strain of HPV, he should always use a barrier fluid method of protection (e.g. condom) to prevent transmitting the high-risk virus to other women incase of non-monogamous relationships.
When HPV comes into contact with a woman, often, there can be a change in cellular activity, but not always.
There are specific strains of the virus (Types 16 and 18) that are found in 70-80% of women with cervical cancer.
From our substantial experience of treating patients with high risk HPV, we as gynaecologists have found that, when attempting to treat the early changes in the cells, the invasive cervical cancer has been controlled and reduced.
If the virus is benign (low-risk) and affects the genital organs and/or anal area, this may lead to genital warts (especially with Types 6 and 11). Genital warts are contagious, ugly to look at, can feel itchy with a burning sensation, and rapidly increase in size and shape. Sometimes, they can be very small to look at. However, when fully grown, they can resemble a cauliflower. Therefore, any woman (or man) with genital warts must be seen immediately by an experienced gynaecologist who is experienced in treating STD.
The warts can be removed chemically, by freezing, by cautery or through excision by surgery. However, even if the warts are removed, sometimes they can recur. This is because we cannot treat the virus or prevent its activity in future, except in 4 types of viruses (Types 6, 11, 16 and 18).
Sometimes the HPV will manifest itself in genital warts and other visible anatomical changes, which suggest that you may have the HPV and should be tested. However, with some consequences, for example with cervical cancer, the symptoms are not as visible. Therefore, to protect yourself and allow early detection of cell abnormalities, you must have a regular smear test.