The following article on HPV is excerpted from an interview with Dr. Lynda Thomas-Mabine, President of the Medical Staff and Chief of the Division of Gynecology at Chestnut Hill Hospital. Dr. Thomas-Mabine candidly discusses and separates fact from fiction regarding the human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV.
Dr. Thomas-Mabine explains that HPV is the acronym for the human papillomavirus; a common and widespread Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) that attacks without prejudice. HPV spreads among millions of people per annum, infecting both males and females alike. Medical researchers have estimated that approximately 50 to 80 percent of the worldwide population will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime.
Thomas-Mabine states that, “unlike other viruses, such as herpes (HSV) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which can cause a number of visible symptoms, HPV is a quiet virus. Quiet because it can lay dormant in the body for many years without displaying any internal or external manifestations. HPV can vary from low-risk strains with no symptoms, to high-risk strains which are very symptomatic. Though most strains of HPV cause little or no problem, certain strains of this quiet virus, if left untreated, can cause some very loud problems; including genital warts and cervical cancer.”
Researchers have identified over one-hundred different strains of the HPV virus. Although most are low-risk and are ameliorated by the body’s immune system, there are at least forty strains which can affect the anal and genital areas. Thirteen strains (16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, and 59) are considered high risk and may cause genital warts; with four strains predisposed to high-grade lesions (6, 11). Although the risk of HPV turning into cervical cancer is possible, the risk is less than 2 percent. Two of the most serious HPV strains (16, 18) can infect a woman’s cervix and lead to cervical cancer.
Dr. Thomas-Mabine cautions all of her sexually active patients to practice safe sex if they are not in a monogamous relationship. “Since HPV spreads through vaginal, anal and oral sexual intercourse, anyone who is sexually active is susceptible to contracting the virus. And no, it doesn’t go away with soap and water.”
So whether you’ve experienced one or twenty-one sexual partners, the likelihood of contracting HPV is very high if your partner has been infected. The spread of HPV is not just limited to intercourse; it can also spread by rubbing the penis on or around the vagina, anus or mouth area; or by kissing the genitals or anus. The virus can also be transmitted by sharing infected sex toys.
With HPV the story goes: “I got it from the guy, who got it from the girl, who got it from the other guy.” And so on…and so on…and so on… In short, HPV is the virus that keeps on giving.
Thomas-Mabine further states that “because HPV is sexually transmitted, not only can it cause cancer of the cervix, but also cancer of the vulva; cancer of the vagina, penis and anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.”
Smoking worsens HPV Thomas-Mabine asseverates.“Studies have shown that women who smoke have a higher incidence of cervical cancer. Although smoking doesn’t cause cervical cancer, the carcinogens in nicotine act as accelerants in the progression of HPV.”
Dr. Thomas-Mabine has been a physician in women’s health for over 20 years. She strongly believes in “prevention rather than cure.” It is her conviction that an informed patient is a healthier patient. She routinely recommends a first PAP smear for her younger patents by age 21 or at least three years after their first sexual intercourse.
One myth about HPV that Thomas-Mabine dispels is that women are the primary carriers of the virus. According to her, men are majorly responsible for the spread of the infection. “Men carry the HPV vector on their penis; often without any symptoms. However, if the strain of HPV is serious, men can develop external genital warts, as well as cancer of the penis and anus. Also they can develop cancers or warts in the mouth or respiratory and digestive tracts. HPV 16 is the most serious strain and is linked to cancer of the tonsils, vocal cords, the tongue, lungs and the esophagus.”
Although HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, it can also be transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact. Touching, rubbing or kissing an infected area and then touching the skin can cause the spread of the virus. Condoms may help to reduce its spread, but they will not eliminate the risk of contracting it. Condoms will however, protect against the spread of HIV, herpes and Chlamydia.
Even though HPV is a virus, the treatment of HPV is not the same as treatment for bacterial STIs like Chlamydia, Syphilis or Gonorrhea. Unlike HPV, these STIs can be treated with a regimen of antibiotics.
There are two vaccines which have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of HPV; Gardasil and Cervarix. The Gardasil vaccine can protect females aged between nine and 26 against four strains of HPV (6, 11, 16, and 18) and assists in the prevention of genital warts, cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva. The Cervarix vaccine targets HPV strains 16 and 18. It has been FDA approved for females aged between 10 and 25 to help prevent cervical cancer.
Dr. Lynda Thomas-Mabine deals with patients who have gynecological issues; including the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) and sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), e.g., the human papillomavirus (HPV).
As the Director of the Center of Excellence for Minimally Invasive Gynecological Surgery, Dr. Thomas–Mabine focuses on a variety of issues surrounding women’s health. Her practice includes, but is not limited to, preventable care, such as Pap testing for early cancer screening and treatment, (pre, current and post) menopause issues, irregular bleeding and pelvic pain, geriatric gynecology and safe-sex practices. She has a special interest in the treatment of uterine fibroids.
Interview By DeBorah Heggs