I was in my 30s and happily married when I found out I had human papillomavirus (HPV) following a routine cervical cancer screening. HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer, and I was definitely surprised, because I thought I had “passed the mark” of being at risk for any sexually transmitted infections (STIs). I remember receiving the call from my nurse practitioner and having her repeat the news at least three times. I am a strong believer in being tested for STIs, but I never thought I would actually hear the word “positive.” It sent a flood of thoughts through my head. Where did I get it? Did I miss symptoms? How would this affect my husband? My marriage? And possibly the scariest question: Would this lead to cancer?
After educating myself on HPV, I now know the facts. The truth is, HPV is very common. More than three-quarters of sexually active women and about half of men will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV can be passed by skin-to-skin contact between straight and same-sex partners, and in some cases can be passed from a mother to her baby. It can take years after exposure to HPV before the virus is detected — that’s why it is impossible to know exactly when someone becomes infected, how long they’ve been infected, or who passed the infection to them.
Most people with HPV don’t have any symptoms, so they don’t even know they have it. About 20 million Americans are currently infected. In most cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. But if it doesn’t, when left untreated, abnormal cells caused by HPV can develop into cervical cancer.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and it’s a good time to talk about how to prevent HPV if we hope to lower the rates of cervical cancer in this country, particularly among Latinas — who are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Every year, about 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 American women die of the disease.
Fortunately, cervical cancer is preventable and there are things we can do to protect ourselves. The HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the fight to prevent cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that girls aged 11 and 12 receive the HPV vaccine, before they become sexually active. But women can also benefit from the vaccine, as the FDA approved it for use up to age 26.
I’m now a mom, and when my daughter is old enough, my husband and I have decided that we will not only discuss the risks of HPV with her, but that we will have her vaccinated.
I’ll also discuss with her the importance of regular screenings as an important way to prevent cervical cancer. This is essential during most of a woman’s adult life, even if her partner is a woman. Women should go to a health care provider to get regular Pap tests starting at age 21, and should be screened every three years up to age 29. For women aged 30 to 64, most should have routine screenings performed every three years using Pap testing or every five years using combined Pap and HPV testing. Finally, condoms may reduce the risk of HPV transmission.
All women should make cervical health a priority and get to a health center for regular Pap tests — and bring your mamis, hermanas, and amigas with you, too.
Vanessa Gonzalez-Plumhoff, Director of Latino Leadership & Engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America