Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. Most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives and some may be repeatedly infected.

There are many types of HPV, each genotype of HPV acts as an independent infection, with differing carcinogenic risks. Sexually transmitted HPVs fall into two categories:
  • Low-risk HPVs, which do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts (condylomata acuminata) on or around the genitals or anus.
  • High-risk or oncogenic HPVs, which can cause cancer. Most high-risk HPV infections (about 90%) occur without any symptoms, go away within 1 to 2 years, and do not cause cancer. It is thought that the immune system fights off HPV naturally. Some high-risk HPV infections, however, can persist for many years and can lead to more serious cytologic abnormalities or lesions that, if untreated, may progress to cancer.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide. There are over 100 different types of HPV, with around 40 types that affect the genital area and 13 types can cause cancer of the cervix.

Early stages of cervical cancers usually do not have any symptoms, and for most women, the first sign of cervical cancer is when changes are detected on a Pap smear (Pap test). Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after sex may also occur.Early detection and treatment of precancerous lesions can prevent progression to cervical cancer. If a Pap smear indicates that cells have been affected by HPV, patient should have more frequent Pap smears until these cells return to normal.

The best way to prevent HPV and other sexually transmitted infections is to remain in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.
There are also two HPV vaccines — Gardasil and Cervarix. They offer protection from several of the most dangerous types of HPV.

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