Africa: HPV - a Simple Virus With Huge Implications

The most common infection transmitted during sex is the Human papillomavirus also referred to as HPV. Though many strains are harmless, beware some types can cause cancer.

Did you know that almost everyone gets an infection the first time they have sex? The most easily transmitted virus is the HPV. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women and men are at risk of infection shortly after becoming sexually active. Though HPV is mostly spread via sexual intercourse, penetrative sex is not required for transmission. Skin-to-skin genital contact with an infected person is enough to catch the virus.

Types of HPV

There are more than 100 types of HPV, good news is that, most types of HPV are harmless and your body's immune system gets rid of them eventually. Bad news is that at least a dozen types of the virus can lead to genital warts in men and women or certain types of cancer such as cervical. It gets even more interesting, HPV strains that cause genital warts are different from the ones that can lead to cancer.

Most people who have HPV show no symptoms and have no clue that they are carrying the virus. That's why it's so easy to get infected.

Vaccination against HPV

The three known vaccines against HPV are most effective if given before the onset of sexual activity. The WHO particularly encourages young girls aged 9-14 to get vaccinated. Why? That's because HPV immune girls mean less risks for the boys in the future and most importantly it protects the girls against HPV 16 and 18 which can lead to cervical cancer.

But what if you have already tasted the forbidden fruit (aka had sexual intercourse) and got infected with HPV? Should you still get vaccinated? You know the saying: 'Better late than never?' You can still get a shot but mind you, the vaccine will not cure the HPV but can help prevent you from getting infected with other types of HPV.

Why it matters for boys and men

Men play a vital role when it comes to spreading HPV. This puts the women at risk of cervical cancer. And cervical cancer can lead to complications when it comes to bearing children which eventually affects the man.

But there's more. HPV can also cause penile cancer in men. It's rare but it's there. It mostly affects men aged between 50 to 70 years, many of them in developing countries. Globally, cases of genital HPV in men are higher than cervical cancer in women, which makes it crucial to vaccinate not just the girls but the boys as well.

HPV prevention behavior

The key thing here is to be aware of the risk. Having the knowledge that every time you engage in sex puts you at risk of contracting HPV, should hopefully lead you to adapt practices and behaviors that limit your chances of getting infected.

What about condoms can they prevent you from HPV? Not really, the virus is so contagious that any skin to skin contact is enough. Nevertheless, using protection is a good idea since it protects from other sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.

And if you unfortunately caught the HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer, don't despair, most cancers including cervical can be treated if discovered at an early stage. So never underestimate the significance of screenings - they could save your life or that of your loved one.

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