Almost Half of Men in The US Have This Virus: How It Will Affect You
Are you one of the millions of men who have no idea they have the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States?
While human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most prevalent STI in the United States, it’s likely the one sexually transmitted infection almost no one has ever heard of, in part because it has been overshadowed by herpes, HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and a resurgence of syphilis.
Because almost half of all men and nearly half of all women (about 45 percent for each gender) have the virus but most are unaware, HPV is considered a hidden epidemic in the US, according to new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States,” according to the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the CDC.
It’s also the one we’re only just now starting to talk about. And with the conversation focusing primarily on sexually active women, that puts sexually active men – especially men in southern states, where sex talk is less prevalent (doctors across the country admit that a certain stigma still prevents them from mentioning the risk of HPV for the recipients of anal sex during consultations) – at risk of developing cancers without being aware they’re in danger.
HPV: The 411
In 2001, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 70 percent of adults in the US had never heard of HPV, even though at least 75 percent of the population ages 15 to 49 had been exposed and 15 percent were already infected.
Because there was so little knowledge of HPV at that time, numbers that were 15 percent in 2001 have risen to approximately 45 percent over the past 15 years, and almost all sexually active adults have now been exposed to the virus.
While there are about 200 different strains of HPV, only 40 types are spread through sexual contact, which could account for the silence surrounding HPV.
In most cases, HPV causes no symptoms or health problems, but a handful of the strains of HPV spread through sexual contact have been linked to a range of different cancers.
Unfortunately, that silence could be deadly.
Men as much at risk as women
While most of those who are informed about HPV know that the virus has been associated with cervical cancer – ads for the FDA-approved vaccine Gardasil and other HPV vaccines, which prevent the HPV strains associated with 70 percent of cervical cancers, make the association clear, and have been since the vaccine was approved in 2006 – cervical cancer is not the only risk, and women are not the only potential victims.
Actor Michael Douglas’s 2013 battle with throat cancer made headlines when he told The Guardian that the virus, not his years of smoking, caused his cancer.
“This particular cancer is caused by HPV … a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer,” he said.
According to statistics, oral sex with an infected partner is linked to 70 percent of all head and neck cancers, while HPV is responsible for the majority of cancers that occur as a result of HPV spread by skin-to-skin contact, including penile, anal, vaginal and vulva cancers.
According to statistics, almost 40,000 cancers each year occur at the sites associated with HPV. Of those, more than 30,000 are linked to HPV, mostly the strains 16 and 18, which are now preventable by vaccine.
So, what’s a guy to do? The stats can be gloomy.
In a room of six men, at least two and most likely three are carriers of HPV, and since there is currently no routine screening available for men comparable to the PAP test for women, unless they’ve experienced symptoms such as warts, they likely have no idea. Even more disturbing for men, guys tend to retain the infection for their entire lives, while more than half of all women with HPV will recover as they age.
Dr. Jasmine Han of Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, believes that men can’t shake the infection because it settles in penile glands, where it is tough to eradicate, while women are sometimes able to recover from infections because the virus lives near the vagina’s entrance, where it can be flushed by a strong immune system.
While the cases of penile and anal cancers are low – less than 3,000 a year for each, with anal cancer risks elevated in (but not limited to) gay men and gay men with HIV, who almost always have at least one strain of HVP – that doesn’t negate the devastating impact either cancer would have on quality of life.
While HPV vaccines were initially targeted toward girls ages 11 to 12, the CDC now recommends both boys and girls get vaccinated before they become sexually active, although the vaccine is effective for those 25 and under.
Know your risk factors
If you’ve missed your opportunity for vaccine prevention, keeping HPV at bay is possible, although traditional methods of prevention such as condoms might not be as effective, because the virus can be spread by hand to genital contact, lessening the effectiveness of condoms.
Risk factors include multiple sex partners, a history of other sexually-transmitted disease, a weakened immune system and existing HIV.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is a tricky virus. It is commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex, although – as we learned from Michael Douglas’ interviews – oral sex is also a risk.
The infected person may have no signs of the virus – remember, most people are unaware that they have HPV – but it can still be passed along, and sometimes doesn’t show symptoms for years.