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Debunking Myths About HPV and Its Deadly Connection to Cervical Cancer

Why should someone in their 30s have to make end-of-life preparations over a disease like cervical cancer, especially when we know the disease can be prevented? One reason may be misconceptions about the disease and the HPV vaccine that put women at risk until it’s too late.

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. The vast majority (95 percent) of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) — a group of more than 100 viruses that infect the skin and are spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Screening and early detection can identify pre-cancerous cells so they can be monitored or removed before they become invasive. The effects of an HPV infection may not develop for years. If undetected and untreated, cancerous cells that start in the cervix can spread to other parts of the vagina or pelvic walls and travel to the bladder, rectum, kidney, lymph nodes and other parts of the body.

Myths About HPV

These are some of the most common misconceptions about HPV.

Myth # 1: You’ll know if you’re infected with HPV. The truth is, HPV is called a silent infection because there are no symptoms. The only way for a woman to know she has it is through testing, as in a Pap test. The test looks for proteins associated with the virus. Some types of HPV cause genital warts, which do not lead to cancer, while others potentially cause cancers.

Myth # 2: HPV infections are not common. HPV infections are incredibly common. Eighty million people are infected with HPV and another 14 million will be diagnosed this year. Not every case of HPV will lead to cervical cancer — our bodies are made to fight off this infection — but if you have persistent infections, it potentially can cause precancers or cancers.

Myth #3: Only women can get HPV. Men and women both can become infected with HPV. In fact, men are three times more likely to have HPV than women. Unfortunately, there is not yet a screening test for men. As with women, men will not have symptoms if they are infected with HPV, and the infections usually go away on their own. But if they don’t, certain cancers like penile, anal and cancer at the back of the throat (oropharyngeal cancer) can develop over time. Using condoms and getting the HPV vaccine can reduce your chances of becoming infected.

Myth # 4: HPV vaccines are dangerous. The HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV —the seven that cause most HPV-related cancers and the two that cause the most genital warts. The vaccine, which is approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), is recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12, ideally before they are exposed to HPV. The vaccine is safe, with the most common side effects being fever, headache and pain or redness in the arm at the site of the shot. There have been no associated drug-correlated deaths with receiving the vaccine. The dangers of developing cancer from HPV outweigh the side effects of the vaccine.

Myth # 5: If you get the HPV vaccine, you no longer need a Pap test. Although the vaccine covers the top seven types of HPV that cause cancer, it doesn’t cover every type. For that reason, it is still important to have screening through a Pap test to detect any abnormalities in the cells in your cervix.

Cervical cancer is avoidable, and when found early, is very treatable. Don’t let myths about HPV and cervical cancer steal your future away.

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