Chances are you have been exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) and don’t even know it. In fact, most adults who have been sexually active have been exposed to HPV, with as many as 20 million Americans estimated to be infected with the genital form of the virus.It is estimated that as many as 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of genital HPV and up to 5.5 million new infections occur each year.
The good news: In the vast majority of cases, the virus causes no symptoms or health problems. The bad news: It causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer, which the American Cancer Society estimates will affect an estimated 10,370 women in 2005, killing about 3,710.In many ways, the issues raised by HPV infection are similar to those raised by genital herpes. Both are incurable and rarely have symptoms. Both can cause medical problems in some women and both have become widespread in this country.Unlike herpes, however, HPV causes cancer in a small percentage of women and men. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause cancers of the vulva, penis, head, neck and anus, but these diagnoses are extremely rare.
The viruses are called papillomavirus because they tend to cause warts, or papillomas—benign (noncancerous) tumors. Warts may appear on the hands and feet, or on the genital area. The strains of HPV that cause warts to grow on hands and feet, however, are rarely the same type that causes warts in the genital area. And, not all HPV viruses cause warts.
There are about 200 different types of HPV. Only about 40 strains are spread through sexual contact and only a handful are associated with cervical cancer. More than 95 percent of HPV viruses cause no symptoms and problems.